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Advertise on the Tentacle

September 3, 2007

Breaking Ground

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

Last week's mail included an invitation to a ground-breaking ceremony. This isn't a small event. This ceremony, designating the beginning of a major construction project, signals the most significant change in the history of my hometown.

On September 20, local officials and community groups will gather with representatives of the developer to break ground on the Brunswick Crossing development. Brunswick Crossing will include over one thousand new homes, of various styles and sizes. Filling those houses will be families, as many as five thousand people, which is the current tally of city residents.

Imagine doubling the size of a community in less than 10 years. It's almost impossible to imagine, and the challenges seem almost overwhelming. More people means more cars, more school kids, more crime, and more demand for water from the Potomac River and more treated wastewater being returned thereto.

More people also means more shoppers, more parishioners, more community volunteers, and more taxpayers. New people will register to vote, and new people will express an interest and run for local political office.

City elected officials are facing major challenges with this influx of construction. The staff has increased significantly in the last few years, but questions abound about whether there are enough professionals on staff to deal with the complexities of managing a multi-million dollar construction project.

When you think about the government's role in a project like this, you typically think of the planners. They are the people who have to review plans, conduct site visits, and spend hundreds of hours in meetings with the developers and their construction teams.

The staff demands go far beyond the planning department, though. Public Works staff will be required to visit the scene of the construction on a regular basis. As the utility pipes get placed underground, Public Works employees will have to inspect the trenches, connections, and materials.

Once the residents start to move in, they'll have to interact with the City Hall staff for utility and tax billing, the Police Department for traffic and crime, and their elected officials for almost anything else.

A myth exists in residential development circles. We've been led to believe that new residential development pays its way, through a combination of impact fees, development taxes, and ongoing property tax payments.

I've never believed that to be true. My dozen years of local government experience suggests that the hidden costs are never "covered" by new residential development. If you consider the costs associated with public education alone, most of the tax payments generated by new residents are sucked up into that black hole.

The Brunswick Crossing development holds a singular and questionable distinction. The referendum that allowed the development to proceed was the last annexation referendum to pass in Frederick County. Every single annexation proposal since then has been defeated by local citizens.

The Brunswick Crossing annexation wasn't a lock for approval, either. There was a relatively large and very vocal opposition group that worked hard to defeat the proposal. Across a wide policy divide was a group of business owners, civic leaders, and citizens who supported the proposal.

The opponents were very well-read and organized. At least one county commissioner served as an unofficial advisor to the group, and a number of people from outside the city limits, especially the neighboring municipality of Rosemont, involved themselves in the opposition.

The vote was close, although not as close as I thought it would be. The annexation was approved, although many of the opponents have continued to serve as careful and skeptical observers of the process.

The healing, such as it is, has been a long and slow process. Annexation opponents have taken an attitude reminiscent of the Cold War battle between the U.S. and the Soviets, Trust but verify.

The mayor, city council, and staff have the responsibility to insure that the developer and builders comply with the law, and fulfill the contractual obligations they made with the people of Brunswick.

In other places in the county, annexation proposals have faced a very different fate. New Market had a historic battle, with signs lining MD 144 expressing pro and con sentiments. The mayor of New Market engaged in a pitched battle of rhetoric with the Board of County Commissioners, and two of the commissioners were fairly active in advising the opposition group.

Similar circumstances are unfolding in Thurmont, where several different annexation proposals have divided the town. Again, some county elected officials have taken to offering advice, both solicited and unsolicited, to town residents. Developers and attorneys are critical of this advice, but the commissioners who engage in this activity are merely fulfilling their campaign promises, and that's not illegal.

One factor differentiating the Brunswick annexation from those that have failed is the introduction of organized opposition groups. The most significant is the Friends of Frederick County, a group that began as a political organization dedicated to electing county commissioners who committed to slowing the rate of residential growth.

The Friends group didn't exist when Brunswick held its annexation vote. The Friends group really hit their stride by focusing on defeating Commissioners Mike Cady and John Lovell. Their methods were questionable, but the outcome is indisputable. They were very effective!

Now the Friends group uses their digital outreach to rally opposition in the towns where annexations are pending. One can't help but wonder whether the Friends of Frederick County could have helped defeat the Brunswick annexation had they been in existence.

Another component of this organized opposition to new growth is the political effect. The Friends group has helped defeat candidates in county elections, but they are not above organizing against local candidates, either.

One can't help but wonder whether places like New Market and Thurmont will benefit (or suffer, depending on your perspective) from outsider political intervention on the growth issue. Will an outside group be able to rally sufficient interest within town limits to elect anti-growth candidates to town councils?

I predict they will, and that influence will mean that there are fewer of these ground-breaking ceremonies for many years. Of course, that means that the assessed value of your home will increase, along with the sales price of existing homes. One fact that no one can dispute is that when the supply of housing is constrained, the cost of housing increases.

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