From what I gather, annexation isn’t the problem. The problem is that
under our current zoning policies, we will use the annexed land in
inefficient and risky ways.
The mayor says we need to build large lot commercial office space
there to generate tax revenue. If our goal is to maximize tax revenue,
building big office parks on this land is probably not the best the
way to do that. Here’s why:
1) INNOVATION PAYS BETTER
You can only make so much money by copying everyone else. The way to
make big bucks is to take advantage of your strengths, and apply them
in a growing market.
Many municipalities around the country consider big office parks to be
the epitome of economic development. But regular office space, such as
that in office buildings downtown, works fine for local firms. Only
big companies in mature industries, such as big financial services and
insurance firms, need and want to occupy these spaces. If we build
these sorts of office spaces, the companies we work for will be big
national companies competing with other big national companies in the
same old mature industries. There’s not much growth in these markets.
The land in question for annexation is some of the most fertile
farmland in the world. Frederick County is very strong agriculturally.
Instead of competing with other big companies in mature industries
that aren’t growing very much, why don’t we we leverage our strengths
and become the world leader in a growing agricultural industry like
For example, a biotech firm headquartered in Frederick could develop a
safe, organic insecticide, and test it in partnership with local
organic farms. Frederick could become a world leader in 21st century
food production. These sorts of breakthroughs won’t come from huge
agribusiness concerns such as Monsanto and Cargill. They’ll come from
smart, dedicated farmers like we have here in Frederick, working in
concert with biotech scientists…like we have here in Frederick.
2) OUR ZONING POLICIES ARE OBSOLETE
Building big office parks according to single-use zoning policies is
part of an obsolete, 50-year-old pattern of development that most
citizens don’t want anymore.
You put your office space in a big plot here, your residential in a
big plot there, your retail in a big plot somewhere else, your schools
in a big plot elsewhere, and your parks and recreation in a big plot
in yet another place. This means people spend hours a day in the
car–driving to work, driving to the store, driving their kids to
This sort of living is stressful and unhealthy. It cuts way down on
the time people can spend with their kids, or contribute to the
community. And, when gas prices rise, it means our daily living
expenses rise right along with them, and suddenly everyone has a lot
less money to spend in local restaurants, with local retailers, on
local charities, etc. Expensive oil shipped in from Riyadh, Saudi
Arabia cripples our local economy here in Frederick, MD.
3) OFFICE PARK TENANTS DON’T CARE ABOUT US
The big, mature companies that want to occupy these sorts of office
parks aren’t headquartered here. This causes problems.
Sure, these big companies employ us, paying us enough to make it worth
our while to work for them, but the profits–the real wealth–is
shipped outside the County. With a local firm, such as Ausherman
Homes, a lot of the profits are reinvested in our community through
organizations like the Ausherman Foundation. With Wells Fargo, for
instance, our community sees none of the profits because they’re
shipped off to investors on the other side of the world.
Also, the people who run these companies are thousands of miles away.
They have no ties to us. If they see advantage in moving somewhere
else, such as a low-wage/low-tax area such as South Carolina or Mexico
or India, they often take it without a second thought. Because they
occupy large facilities, they leave a big employment hole behind when
4) SPRAWL KILLS ECONOMIC GROWTH
Concentrated development spurs economic activity. Spreading things out
slows it down.
When you spread business out and isolate it, as in big office parks,
it slows down economic activity. It’s like spreading out nuclear
material in a reactor. But when we concentrate lots of businesses
within a given area, it not only increases the degree of economic
development, it expands the kind of economic activity that can grow.
For example, I have a friend who’s a world-class software engineer
with a passion to open up a “green” high-quality pizza delivery
business. In suburban subdivisions and office parks, that model won’t
work–the distances between customers are too great. But in a
mixed-use area in which business/residential/retail are concentrated,
like the Del Ray neighborhood in Alexandria, he can deliver
wood-fired, fresh mozzarella pizzas by electric car or bicycle for $20
a pop and make great money. It’d be a shame to lose him to Del Ray.
5) SMART PEOPLE WANT DOWNTOWN FREDERICK
Creative, innovative, highly-skilled, knowledgeable people starting
and staffing the high-wage, high-growth businesses of the future don’t
want to live in places created according to our current zoning
policies, such as Rockville or Gaithersburg. They want to live in
places like downtown Frederick.
They don’t want to work in cubicle farms and file TPM reports a la the
movie “Office Space.” They want to be part of a vibrant, urban
environment with lots to do and lots of people like themselves to
interact with–withing walking distance. To get that, we’ll need
zoning policies that don’t include big, isolated office parks.
The easy thing to do would be to conduct business as usual and allow
big office parks to be built on the farmland to be annexed. But if we
do that, we’re incurring significant problems and risk.
Instead, why don’t we get together and explore alternatives? It won’t
be easy to come up with something better than our status quo zoning
practices, but it will be an improvement. It’ll generate more revenue
for our City government, more economic activity in our business
community, and make life easier for citizens of Frederick.
Want to talk more about this? I hope so!
Thanks for your kind attention,
comments from Chris Charuhas, Frederick City resident, to the Frederick City Planning Commission