Flashback to a decade ago: “Demonizing Developers?”

Ten years ago, I was in the middle of my campaign for election to the Frederick County Board of County Commissioners. It would be an understatement to say that a lot has happened since then when it comes to Frederick County, Frederick County government and land use planning and zoning here. A very short list includes the four years of the 2006-2010 Gardner board, on which I served, the 2008 re-write of the Frederick County Comprehensive Plan, the 2010 election and the four year term of the Blaine Young board, the zoning changes to the 2008 plan, the change to charter government, the 2014 election of our first county executive and county council, and more.

Anyway, about ten years ago, during that campaign, I wrote the blog entry below. I think it is interesting to read it now, and that it holds up well, because, as much as some things change, some things remain the same.

Ten years ago, nobody would have predicted that, just eight years later, a candidate for county office (Blaine Young, in his failed run for the new county executive position) would spend about $1,000,000.00 in his campaign, roughly 70% of which came from the development interests described in the blog entry.

Candidates and elected officials come and go. But the particular dynamic that leads wealthy development interests to “invest” heavily to elect candidates that will serve their narrow interests, rather than the broader public interest, has not changed.

Among other things, that is why Envision Frederick County works to get county residents and voters more informed and involved.


winchesterhall500w

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Demonizing Developers?

“Over the past 15 years, the people who build homes in the county have been vilified. It’s not an evil industry, but it’s the only industry we shut down when we don’t like what’s happening in the county.”

Those are the words of land use attorney Rand Weinberg, as printed in a Frederick News Post article (“Land Plan Rejected”) last year.

It’s worth noting that Mr. Weinberg’s comments were made as part of a public hearing of the Planning Commission about a proposed text amendment to the county’s Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance (APFO). The amendment, which was written and submitted by the Land Use Council of the Frederick County Builders Association, would have added a new section establishing a “School Mitigation Impact Fee Premium” (in essense, a doubling of the current impact fee) to allow an additional 750 homes to be built every year that would not have been subject to the current school adequacy standards of the Frederick County Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance.

The proposal was met with overwhelming and intense opposition from county residents. And, in this instance, it failed.

Anyway, that was not the first time, or the last, that a local developer or land use attorney complained that developers and land use attorneys have been repeatedly vilified and demonized by members of the public and some elected officials.

Four years ago, during his unsuccessful campaign for county commissioner Charles A. Jenkins (who is running again this year) said that “there seems to have been a concerted effort of several on the current Board of County Commissioners to demonize varied groups, such as landowners, businesses and home builders…”

More recently, Mark Friis, of Rodgers Consulting, observed that it’s “easy for some at Winchester Hall to demonize them.”

There are plenty of other examples, of course.

I’ve been accused of “demonizing” developers once or twice myself.

While I would debate the accuracy of that, I wouldn’t deny there are times when some citizens and elected officials use broad and negative generalizations to express their opposition to a particular developer initiative, whether it’s a local rezoning application or a text amendment to the APFO or a twenty year plan for an entire region of the county.

Of course, two wrongs don’t make a right, but the number of such public statements pales in comparison to the number of times I’ve heard (or read) developers or land use attorneys mischaracterize and insult citizens who are informed, involved and motivated enough to show up and speak out. On a regular basis, county residents who participate in the process are referred to or described in ways designed to demean or dismiss their concerns, suggestions and objections.

It would be bad enough if it was only self-serving development interests making such comments, but it’s worse when it comes, as it often has, from some of our county commissioners.

We hear concerns written off as nimbyism (NIMBY stands for “not-in-my-back-yard”).

We are told that more recent arrivals want to build a fence or a wall around the county, and shut the gate now that they are here, preventing others from enjoying the benefits of living here.

Another version of the same idea replaces the imaginary fence with a moat, and the gate with a draw bridge that newer county residents pull up behind them after they’ve come across.

It isn’t unusual to hear citizens described as misguided or poorly informed.

And finally, for now (even though this is only a partial list of examples), one of the most common tactics employed by developers and land use attorneys is to refer to any and everyone who is opposed to their view as a no-growth or anti-growth extremist.

As I said in a February 24, 2005 Gazette column entitled: County builders envy our neighbor’s growth:

“If we credit the builders with knowing something about their business, and we’re too polite to accuse them of lying to us, we can only assume that “no-growth” is another euphemism, an all-purpose term that can be applied to any and all efforts to direct or plan the growth that is re-shaping our community.”

Whether it’s intentional or not, the constant use of these too-easy and too-common labels serves to keep the public discussion and debate away from the real issues.

As long as we allow the politically-active developers to define the debate as one between “pro-growth” businesses and citizens against “anti-growth extremists,” we won’t engage the critical and overdue conversation about the choices we can make about how we grow – and we do have real choices, real alternative ways of approaching planning and development that could make a big difference. (That’s a big subject of it’s own, and one for a future blog entry.)

So, anyway, some developers and land use attorneys feel vilified and demonized, and involved citizens are disparaged and dismissed.

The relationship is dysfunctional. It isn’t serving the public interest. And, in part, that’s because things are out of balance!

Frederick County would be better off if more county residents were more informed and more involved, and the system was not so tilted toward development interests.

That is not to say that builders and mortgage bankers and realtors and land use attorneys do not have a legitimate interest in the planning process. They do. And they have a right to participate in the process and advocate for their interests.

But…

There is so much money involved in development, and the industry is so affected by the decisions of local governments, that very well paid representatives spend nearly as much time at Winchester Hall as they spend in their own offices.

While most people are at their jobs during the day, a sizable number of attorneys and others are hard at work – literally – around the edges of every part and process of county government that affects land use, directly and indirectly. They know the details of all the relevant county and state laws. They know all the details of the county’s zoning ordinance and the comprehensive plan. They know – at least on paper – all the property in the county.

They know the county planning staff. They know the members of the Board of Zoning Appeals (in fact, the current chairman, Billy Shreve, is a realtor and a not-yet-filed candidate for county commissioner.) They know the members of the Planning Commission. To varying degrees, they know all the elected members of the Board of County Commissioners. They attend morning, afternoon and evening worksessions and public hearings.

And, no less noteworthy, as things work now, the development industry initiates a sizable portion of what the county staff and county commissioners spend their time on. Rezoning applications, text amendments to the Zoning Ordinance and the Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance, many of the components of each region plan update process, and a great deal more.

It’s not surprising that the industry – here and nearly everywhere else – realized long ago that everything would be a lot easier if they were able to get supportive, like-minded people elected to office. As individuals, businesses and organizations, they contribute substantial funding to the election campaigns of some candidates for local office.

It’s worth noting that the amount contributed directly to election campaigns is a drop in their bucket when compared to what they spend on attorneys and others to influence the decisions of our representatives once they’re elected. So, from a purely business point of view, the money is a small and worthwhile investment. (During the last election in Loudoun County, just across the river, development interests invested a few years of organizing efforts and more than half a million dollars to influence the outcome. It proved to be a very profitable investment…for them.)

In the end, the argument that developers and/or land use attorneys are “demonized” is a distraction.

No matter the response, it doesn’t alter the fact that the development industry is a very wealthy and influential force in our community (and others) that vigorously represents and advocates for it’s own interest – on every front, at great expense, day after day after day…period.

What the rest of us need to remember is that no matter how legitimate those business interests may be, and no matter how legitimate it is for the industry to pursue those interests, the interests of the industry are not the same as the interest of our citizens, our communities, our future.

Their interests and ours do overlap.

We have shared interests.

But all our interests are not shared – they are not identical.

Builders, mortgage bankers, realtors and other members of the development industry play an important role in our community.

We want and need people to perform these tasks, whether it’s building or renovating our homes, businesses, schools, roads, parks and other public facilities, or helping individuals, businesses and institutions to finance such projects, or facilitating the connections between buyers and sellers, and so on.

We want them to do it well.

The people who do the work ought to be able to make a decent living, and the companies shoud be able to make a good return on their investments.

But it is not in the interest of our communities to build as many houses as possible, as fast as possible, on any land a builder can purchase (or sign an agreement with a landowner, contingent upon approval or rezoning or whatever).

It is not up to the development community to ensure new construction includes an appropriate mix of housing sizes and types and prices, in the right places, reflecting the real nature and needs of our community.

It is not the responsibility of developers to guarantee ample and uncrowded schools. It isn’t their job to ensure adequate and uncongested roads. It isn’t their business to worry about the feasibility of public transit. It isn’t their role to assure abundant green spaces and recreational parks. We can not rely on them to preserve cohesive areas of productive agricultural land. It isn’t part of their mission – their business – to protect watersheds or groundwater supplies. Etc.

It is ultimately our responsibility.

And we delegate that responsibility to the five people we elect to serve us as members of the Board of County Commissioners.

If we do things right, the public will benefit, and private developers will benefit. If we continue to do things as we have been, private development interests will benefit greatly in the short-term, at the expense of the public interest.

The same old, same old, business as usual approach has to change.

The current model is not working…for us…even if it is working for developers.

There are a lot of things we can do to shift the imbalance of power and influence, to level the playing field. We can improve the county’s ethics ordinance. We can institute some basic and long overdue lobbying reforms. We can change the process through which the county plans our future, in part to increase the level and quality of participation of all stakeholders. We can ensure the process incorporates a more responsible and business-like approach to examining the short and long term costs and benefits of the choices we consider.

But…as our experience has revealed, over and over again…

All of that begins with the choices we make when we elect our county commissioners in the first place.