Let’s do the math (FNP)

Let’s do the math

Originally published June 06, 2010

In his letter to your newspaper on May 23, Thomas Lynch, a principal in the law firm of Miles and Stockbridge, issued a call for “serious, honest and consensus-seeking discussion” about development in our county. We support this call — an informed and respectful exchange is long overdue.

Topic number one in our mind is the cost of development. By cost, we mean the financial costs of public services and facilities required to support development.

We believe that much of the development inFrederick County — particularly subdivision and commercial sprawl — costs far more than the tax revenues it generates. This gap between costs and revenues largely explains, in our judgment, why our roads and schools are overcrowded, why our taxes keep going up, and why we face the most severe budgetary crisis in decades. After all, if sprawl development actually paid its own way, then none of these problems would ever arise.

One reason this gap persists is that the full costs of development are often overlooked during planning and approval of large-scale development. A case in point is the 2010 Comprehensive Plan proposed by the City of Frederick . The city’s “financial analysis” of this plan projects a surplus in revenues for the city if the plan is implemented.

This projection was made, however, only after most of the cost of building and maintaining county and state roads, and the cost of building and operating county public schools, had been excluded. These costs, which have been reliably estimated to exceed $1 billion over the 20-year life of the plan, were apparently ignored because they would be paid by some other agency or jurisdiction, and not by the city itself.

As we know, however, the cost of development all comes out of the same pocket — that of the county taxpayer — regardless of which government agency or jurisdiction pays the bill. Any projected surplus in revenues under the city’s plan is misleading because it would depend entirely on a subsidy by county taxpayers of hundreds of millions of dollars. In other words, the city’s plan would simply rob Peter to pay Paul.

We ought to be able to accurately calculate the cost of development. It can’t be that hard. Roads and schools are the big-ticket items. Fire and emergency services, libraries, parks, and water and waste management facilities are also costly. As Lynch points out, our community is home to many informed, talented and resourceful citizens. Working together, as he proposes, we can begin to distinguish between those developments that we can afford and those that we cannot.

Fortunately, Maryland law now requires precisely this kind of analysis. The goal of this new requirement is to ensure that all costs of development — and not just those paid by one jurisdiction or agency — are fully disclosed and considered in the municipal land-use planning process. Under these new requirements, for example, the county and the city are currently evaluating the development costs associated with the city’s proposed 2010 Comprehensive Plan and will present their findings at a public workshop at 7 p.m. Monday, June 7, in the boardroom of Frederick City Hall, 101 N. Court St.

We are fortunate that the Board of County Commissioners foresaw four years ago that, when it came to development, we were living far beyond our means. By acting immediately to correct the mistakes of the past, the board avoided further risks to the fiscal integrity of our county and gave us a plan for a balanced and, above all, an affordable future.

We welcome Thomas Lynch’s call for a new dialogue. Let’s start with the math.

Janice Wiles is executive director

of Friends of Frederick County.