Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Is This Smart Growth? Part Three

Smart growth holds that development should be directed to areas with abundant transit access. The Planning Department staff proposal for a new growth policy pursues that goal through a variety of measures. But it also directs more development to areas far from transit. Here is one way it does that.

Developers of new projects are required to pay impact taxes to the county to help offset the cost of building and maintaining infrastructure to support them. Commercial projects are charged impact taxes to subsidize transportation, while residential projects are charged taxes to subsidize both transportation and school construction. Currently, the county has three schedules of impact tax rates for transportation. Projects in Metro Station Policy Areas (MSPAs), which are small areas immediately surrounding all metro stations in the county except for Forest Glen, are charged the lowest taxes on the grounds that substantial transportation facilities are already in place. Projects in Clarksburg are charged three times the MSPA rates on the grounds that Clarksburg requires substantial infrastructure investment to meet the needs of its residents. Projects in all other areas are charged double the MSPA rates. The net effect of the schedules is to encourage development around Metro stations through charging lower impact taxes than elsewhere.

The staff proposal would create a fourth schedule for transportation impact taxes: “other urban areas.” Chapter 49 of the County Code designates a number of areas as “urban” for the purposes of road design. The vast majority of them are near Metro stations and are covered by the MSPA impact tax schedule. But a few of them are not. The Planning Department staff proposes to charge projects in those areas two-thirds the impact taxes of the general (non-Metro, non-Clarksburg) schedule.

Where are these “other urban areas?” The Montgomery Hills Parking Lot District is near the Forest Glen Metro station, but is located on one of the most clogged stretches of state highway (Georgia Avenue just south of the Beltway) anywhere in the county. The Flower/Piney Branch Arliss urban area would have a Purple Line stop assuming that the transit line is constructed. The Germantown Town Center and Clarksburg Town Center urban areas would have Corridor Cities Transitway stops assuming that that project is constructed. But neither project is guaranteed and even if they are built, construction will be completed many years in the future. Yet the staff proposal would encourage development there now. The Damascus and Olney Town Centers may never get transit stations. Yet projects in those areas will be eligible for lower impact taxes too. Why?

The staff provides this reasoning in encouraging development in these “other urban areas:”

As described above, the MWCOG [Metro Washington Council of Governments] Travel Survey conducted in 2007 and 2008 found that housing proximate to regional activity centers generated both fewer trips-per-household and shorter vehicle-miles-traveled, reflecting higher non-automobile use and the proximity of jobs and services prevalent in land use clusters. An equitable approach to taxing the households in these areas would reduce the per capita tax for new dwellings appropriately, similar to the lower rates available in Metro Station Policy Areas. We therefore recommend a new category for these residences to coincide with Urban Areas classified in Chapter 49 of the County Code that are not in MSPAs.

Data from the 2008 MWCOG household survey shows a VMT [vehicle miles traveled] rate of approximately two-thirds that of a residence located outside of an activity cluster. Households in MWCOG activity centers generated 19.6 VMT per day, compared to 29.3 VMT per day generated by households outside of the activity centers. Therefore, rates proposed are calculated as two-thirds that of the 2007-2009 adopted rate for general residential.
The staff is making a significant mistake here by lumping in all “regional activity centers” together. Most urban areas in Montgomery County are located in Downcounty. Residents there have shorter distances to travel to work, to retail, to school and to D.C. and Virginia than Upcounty residents. They also have access to Metro stations, while Upcounty residents do not. But the staff assumes that travel patterns in Upcounty “regional activity centers” or “urban areas” resemble those in Downcounty. That violates common sense. Most Damascus residents will have far longer commutes than Bethesda residents because the jobs will almost always be farther away. Plus, they will have to drive a much longer distance to access Metro.

By giving developers impact tax breaks for projects in places like Germantown, Clarksburg, Damascus and Olney, the Planning Department staff is actually encouraging more auto activity. That’s not smart growth at all.

But this is the tip of the iceberg compared to what is coming next. We’ll have more in Part Four.