Many basic “facts” about growth and development are…NOT!

Quick…

True or False?

• Growth provides needed tax revenues.

• New housing development creates jobs and reduces unemployment.

• Communities benefit from “business-friendly” policies that include minimal regulation, lower taxes and fees on developers, and a variety of public incentives and subsidies for new development.

• Environmental protection hurts the economy.

• Our community has to “grow or die.”

• Smart Growth advocates are just another special interest.

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If you answered “True” to some or all of those statements, you are certainly not alone.

But…more often than not, you would be wrong.

The statements above are a few of the entrenched myths associated with growth and development, here and elsewhere. Repeated over and over again by developers, land use attorneys and realtors…and politicians…they have become articles of faith, fundamental “truths” we need not doubt or scrutinize as part of the ongoing public discussion and debate about the future of our community.

Nevertheless, more and more often, these assumptions are being critically examined. There have been dozens of studies completed, and more are underway. Virtually all come to the same conclusions.

Still, though the mounting evidence to the contrary is overwhelming, it is not easy for some people to question long-held beliefs, especially when those who benefit continue to repeat the same old message.

Let’s take a look at the first myth on the list.

We are still told, as if it is automatically a good thing and a public benefit, that new growth expands the local tax base. Of course, it does generate new tax revenues. No argument there. No less obvious, however, (even though it is far less highlighted), new growth also generates substantial new costs.

The fact is that many common patterns of growth during the last few decades, especially greenfield sprawl, have consistently — and sometimes dramatically — required (cost) more in infrastructure and public services than will ever be generated in taxes from the new development.

New development requires roads, schools, water and sewer, electricity, parks, police, fire protection, and many other services. When that development does not cover either the upfront costs (for infrastructure) or the ongoing costs of the services necessary to support it, those who live in the communities that were already here end up subsidizing the additional and poorly planned growth in different ways.

One way is that more of the existing tax base may be diverted to help finance the public infrastructure and continuing services required by the new development. In any case, if the money is spent, it has to come from something else, or through tax increases.

For instance: A new high school may be built to serve the new development, while the older high school in town has much needed and long overdue renovations put off, year after year.

Or perhaps the money isn’t invested at all, and the necessary infrastructure isn’t built or improved enough or at all.

For instance: There is no expectation that more than a small fraction of the money needed to improve Route 75 between I70 and I270 will be available, even as thousands of new homes are approved and built on farms along that corridor.

When that happens — and it actually happens a lot — we all “pay” in other ways. We pay with worse traffic congestion. We pay with overcrowded schools. We pay with insufficient fields and parks for youth sports. And so on, and on.

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If we’re all paying, who benefits?

Well…the primary beneficiaries are the developers and construction companies, not to mention some bankers and realtors, who invest heavily in local elections and work tirelessly to influence local government to alter public policy, change zoning and direct resources in ways that reflect their interests, not the public interest.

A few profit, considerably, while the direct and indirect costs — very real costs — are distributed across the broader community — to you and me.

And yet, every single effort to place a larger fraction of the actual cost where it belongs is met with howls of protest from development interests (and virtually nobody else).

As long as one very narrowly-focused but well-financed segment of our much broader community is able to direct public policy and resources to serve their interest at the expense of good planning and the public interest, our infrastructure deficit will continue to grow.

But as significant as the long term effects of increasingly inadequate infrastructure will be, it’s only part of the problems we face when land use policy, planning and zoning are heavily or wholly driven by development interests.

When planning and development is largely by and for developers, it isn’t planning at all. In all sorts of ways that rarely receive the level of public attention and understanding they deserve, it leads to development that is less efficient and more costly when it comes to providing ongoing services.

And that is another reason why the increased tax revenues that come with new growth do not automatically or certainly accrue to the public benefit. Poorly planned development is far more likely to cost local government more than it generates in revenues — even not accounting for the infrastructure deficit at all.

Beyond all that, it is also development that is more likely to leave out many important elements of good planning that affect the quality of life in our communities, but those are complicated subjects for another day.

A business that only looked at revenues, and ignored short and long term costs — economic and otherwise — would eventually or quickly be out of “business.”

We commit sizable investments of public resources to support growth, yet fail to fully account for these costs in terms of the impact on current and future residents and taxpayers, or on public facilities, or natural resources.

When we do account for the actual economic, social and environmental costs of growth, it should be clear that there are major advantages to managing growth responsibly and well, and directing it to the proper places, at the right time.

If the additional tax revenues associated with new growth were automatically a benefit to the community, generating new revenues and new infrastructure, then it would seem logical and fair to assume that all our previous growth and development has had a positive effect, reduced the cost of public services and lowered property taxes.

But that assumption would be wrong, obviously.

If we consider the evidence in places throughout the county, the current approach to growth in Frederick County is very unlikely to reduce our tax burdens…or reduce traffic, for that matter.

Growth and development can cut many ways. Intelligent, well-planned growth could enhance the quality of life for Frederick County residents by adding and improving services, creating opportunities and new amenities, even contributing to the expansion of park land for people and wildlife. Or it can have a significant negative impact on our quality of life, decreasing our share of public services and facilities, while driving disinvestment, reducing competitiveness, and seriously degrading our environment and landscape.

Only the informed involvement of Frederick County residents (and voters) can guarantee that businesses, community leaders, developers, and local governments will work together to ensure that new growth occurs in a manner that improves the economy and environment of existing communities – our communities.

The future of our communities is too important to be primarily shaped by developers, or for the creation of short-term construction jobs and profits.

Don’t believe the myth that growth is always good for the tax base and taxpayers. Maintain a healthy skepticism and ask important questions.

How will or can our overall planning, or any particular development, truly benefit the broader community, tomorrow and years from now? What are the real costs, now and later, and who will pay? What are the alternatives? How much growth can and should our community support? What kind? Where? And how fast?

By itself, expanding the tax base isn’t necessarily a good deal at all.

And don’t let any self-interested developers or candidates for public office tell you otherwise!