Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Council Acrimony Over Growth Policy Moves to the Papers

While I doubt they will ever beat out The Biggest Loser or Survivor, ratings for television broadcasts of County Council meetings could rise above zero to measurable levels if the tension in the Council on display in the papers moves to their public meetings.

After a tough debate, the Montgomery County Council adopted changes to the County's growth policy. However, the Council has not been able to move on from the issue. Indeed, Councilmembers are now taking their debate out of the Council and attacking each other in the Gazette.

Last week, Councilmember Nancy Floreen argued that the new controls are going to undermine the County's currently fragile economy and thus County revenues:

Market forces have now achieved what 20 years of arbitrary regulations could not — the reduction of growth to a crawl. And the new growth policy will only worsen our fiscal situation.

By establishing impossible-to-meet growth controls, it will discourage private sector investment and the creation of new jobs, new housing and tax revenue. Unless government picks up the check, at most we will only see more of the luxury housing, chain retail and huge corporations that can pay the price. So much for the economic and social diversity that Montgomery County has cherished.

Councilmember Valerie Ervin largely agrees:

County Executive Isiah Leggett is on record as stating that the ‘‘charges imposed on residential development are ultimately reflected, in whole or in part, in the pricing of homes and care must be taken so that homes are not priced even further out of the reach of residents of moderate income.” I agree. Limiting new development makes our county a more exclusive and expensive place to live. Once housing prices get out of reach for most average people, individuals who work in the county will be forced to look for housing in other jurisdictions.

I have serious concerns about limiting growth in areas where the county has a history of encouraging development, such as near Metro stations. This is not my idea of smart growth. Some claim that theses areas are where robust development is taking place, but data show that 80 percent of commercial rentals are occurring outside these areas.

This week, Councilmembers Phil Andrews, Marc Elrich, Marilyn Praisner, and Duchy Trachtenberg fired back, arguing that their colleague got it wrong:

First, the effect of the growth policy won’t be felt immediately. Development already approved will continue to move forward. That approved development includes 31,616 housing units (projected timeline for build-out: six years), and 32,210,095 square feet of commercial space (projected timeline for build-out: 11 years). If the county experiences a slowdown in the coming months or year, it will be due to economic forces, not the newly adopted growth policy. A national recession that affected this entire country caused the funding shortfall the county experienced in the early 1990s, not a restrictive growth policy.

Second, Ms. Floreen’s contention that the growth policy will amplify the recent weakness in the housing market is also off base. Growth in housing and commercial development always ebbs and flows due to national economic forces. It is not something the county controls. What we can affect through the growth policy is the obligations on new growth, and who pays for it. Many of the county’s current budget problems have been caused by trying to catch up with infrastructure needs caused by past growth.

Thirdly, growth does not always pay for itself. New housing requires new roads, schools, recreation centers, parks, libraries and other infrastructure. Providing this new infrastructure costs money. With that in mind, the new growth policy included impact taxes to assure that new growth helps pay for itself, so that the burden of new growth does not fall solely on our current residents.

The Council quad is certainly right that many projects are already approved. Many projects already in the planning pipeline are on hold or going more slowly due to the economic slowdown rather than to the changes in the county growth policy.

My impression in the southern part of the County is that residents will welcome a bit of a breather. In Bethesda and Silver Spring, the slower pace merely means that growth will proceed at a steady, albeit slower, pace instead if the pell-mell fever which has gripped the area in recent years with white development signs sprouting like daisies in urban centers.

And let's not forget BRACasaurus. The expansion of the Naval Medical Center--not to mention the growth of NIH across the street--promises to place incredible new stresses on the already burdened Wisconsin Ave./Rockville Pike corridor and the Beltway. Neither the County, the State, or the Feds are willing (or able?) to contribute the significant sums needed to address this serious issue as Adam Pagnucco has pointed out.

Still, it will be interesting to see if attitudes in the County shift if the economy slips into recession and growth grinds to a complete halt. Many years ago, voters in Fairfax County elected a team of Democrats on anti-growth Democrats and tossed them out in favor of pro-growth Republicans when the County went into recession.