Framing Frederick County’s Growth
Every community struggles at times and to varying degrees with the debate over growth. Many communities have healthy growth, but constantly debate how to embrace it, others want it but cannot achieve it, yet others simply do not want growth at all.
These dynamics are affected by geography, economics, sociology, and demographics. How they play out in the eyes of the public is due to politics. This series of columns is intended to set the framework for a thoughtful discussion and debate about these dynamics because we happen, by no choice of our own other than our decision to live here, to be a county where growth is both necessary and certain.
The topics will build upon one another to provide a deeper understanding of the complexities of growth and development from a general history of land use planning in Frederick County, to projected needs, massively changing demographic drivers, regulatory decisions and fiscal implications of our choices.
To begin, step back to just over a half-century ago. Within the last 55 years a number of demographic, economic, policy and political decisions have contributed to the current and future development patterns. The combined effect of housing our returning war veterans, federal job growth, and the construction of I-270 and I-70 were primary drivers of population growth in Frederick County.
The first Frederick County Master Plan was adopted in 1959, along with the first Countywide Zoning Ordinance. The first Planned Unit Development (PUD) was approved in the summer of 1967. It took another decade to undertake a major revision to the Zoning Ordinance in 1977, wherein four residential districts were created along with the “3 Plus a Remainder” provisions for agricultural parcels that existed as of August, 18, 1976. A provision that, combined with the Agricultural Preservation Program which was initiated just two years later, is still heralded by local and state leaders as what saved the county’s agricultural lands.
As population growth continued at a rate of 8-10% annually, the Countywide Comprehensive Plan was updated again in 1984, followed by code revisions as well as a Comprehensive Rezoning Process every six-months.
Clearly changes were underway and our understanding of the effects and dynamics were increasing. By the late 80s, a new planning effort was envisioned to adopt the goals and policy statements countywide followed by regional plans for the eight planning areas, which began in the early 90’s.
Also in the early 90s the Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance (APFO) was adopted at a time when we were averaging 2,000 building permits per year and the school system was bursting at the seams, and there were more students than seats in the classroom. (The APFO is a significant policy and regulatory mechanism that ‘requires all new development to pay its proportionate fair share of the costs for capital facilities…’)
Throughout the late 90s, a number of region plans and functional plans were adopted. The turn of the 21st Century led to the second round of region plans and a number of new policy initiatives.
In 2002 the Moderately Priced Dwelling Units (MPDU’s) Ordinance was enacted as home prices were racing toward all-time highs with easy access to financing, low interest rates and constrained supply of housing. Over the last 20 years, elections brought ‘pendulum politics;’ and, along with it, their impacts on the programs and policies that shape the county.
But around 2007, a major economic reset occurred. Banks stopped lending and money stopped flowing. Unemployment and foreclosures skyrocketed. At the same time, Frederick County enacted a subdivision moratorium, which, combined with the absence of financing, ultimately lead to a major vacuum in the development pipeline.
In 2010, with an overhang of foreclosures, fragile consumer confidence, reduced household savings and equity, and looming unemployment, a series of regulatory changes began to take place to jump start the economy. The circumstances that were the original basis for many of these regulations decades earlier was considerably different in 2010 and forecasted to remain so for the foreseeable future.
The federal government reduced spending, and job growth in the region was anemic. Population growth in Frederick County had slowed to 1% per year.
From 2008–2011, an average of 640 building permits were issued each year; and for several years following 2007, when system wide classroom capacity was around 90%, enrollment was down. With revenue down, the county had to make some tough choices to scale back or eliminate many programs.
Several of the regulatory changes made during this time dovetailed the new normal of school capacity and low housing prices, to generate revenue and create jobs. Such policy approaches are more typical of mature and maturing communities that are growing slowly, yet Frederick County’s APFO is still among the most restrictive in the region.
Despite this anemic growth and the constant anxiety associated with this fragile recovery, we are very fortunate to have positive economic growth. Revenues and fees from growth are structurally necessary to maintain tax rates and a minimum number of new homes are a key part of the equation.
This growth is planned and necessary; and, yet, too many people are in denial of its need in fostering a vibrant community and county. One needs to look no further than our neighbors in Allegany County and Hagerstown to see the adverse effects of negative growth.
What does all this mean? It is choices by the county that contribute to the timing and pattern of development that affect both revenues and expenditures. Many policy initiatives result in either direct or indirect costs/fees, and many are counter to certain policies that were implemented, and further created unnecessary constraints on supply and demand.
Without argument, many were and are still needed to achieve a well-balanced community. Clearly though, changes were and are needed to continue to ‘respond to those changing drivers of growth and development’ over time.
To that end, future columns will touch on projected needs; the timeframe from vision to implementation and the lengthy approval process; market factors and demographics that affect the timing of development; as well as the regulatory changes over time and the fiscal implications and choices brought about.
For now, think about the changes in the last 55 years, the opportunity over the next 55 years and look for next week’s column on general development data and projected needs.