Commissioners' course on growth shapes up in positive fashion

November 03, 2003|by TIM ROWLAND

Alluding to the respective businesses owned by Washington County Commissioners Greg Snook and Jim Kercheval, homebuilders said this week that the county's proposed new-housing fees would be like a special tax affecting only pet cemeteries or barbecue sandwiches.

The point is well-taken that homebuilders, and ultimately homebuyers, would be asked to ante up to pay for the costs of growth, while the rest of the county tax base is unscathed.

The difference though is that dead animals, as a rule, do not attend public schools. And barbecue sandwiches to not drive on county roads.

Sandwiches and expired cats don't cost the county treasury any money, whereas growing population costs it a lot. We've been warned about an impending population boom in Washington County for a decade or more, but to date the ferocious growth encountered in Jefferson County, W.Va., or Frederick County, Md., hasn't happened.


We may be reaching a tipping point, however, where growth will be significant. School populations are starting to skew upward and the county's building moratorium has created so much pent-up demand that development will likely pop like a can of snakes when it is finally lifted.

Although ill-advised to begin with, the commissioners did the proper thing last week by extending the moratorium until a new comprehensive plan is engaged. For the past year, the moratorium has created an artificial supply-and-demand imbalance, and if the county had knocked the chuck from the development wheel before installing a new set of brakes, the result could have been disastrous.

The second proper decision by the commissioners was to begin to enact an updated Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance that would tax new homes in higher growth areas up to $6,500. Basically, that would add $40 to $50 to the average new-homeowner's mortgage payment. The revenue would help pay for more classrooms and roads capable of handling the extra traffic.

Homebuilders protest under the banner of fairness. Why should one subset of people or one industry have to pay the whole tab, when most everyone in the county sends their kids to public schools and most everyone in the county drives on public roads?

That's a valid point to which there are two only marginally satisfactory answers. First, longtime residents have been paying for schools, roads and other public improvements for years through their property and income taxes. Over 10, 20 or 50 years, their share of public projects has come to a lot more than $6,500.

Second, a tax - any tax - is hardly ever fair. People without children have to pay for schools, and they pay exactly the same amount as people who have seven kids. People who don't drive have to pay for highways, just as people who don't read have to pay for libraries. How many people like the idea of their tax money subsidizing wealthy North Carolina tobacco farmers?

The point is, the County Commissioners need to raise the money somehow, and as our elected officials they are charged with raising it in the best way they see fit. And someone, of course, is not going to be happy.

The irresponsible path would have been the easiest for the commissioners - do nothing and let us muddle through as best we can, idly watching the quality of our education system deteriorate, our roads become a congested mess and our public utilities become inadequate to the point where it threatens public health.

Through the smoke, the county's plans for growth have emerged over the past several weeks and it appears to be steering a sensible, if not always politically popular, course.

Despite a huge outpouring of public protest against a proposed Comprehensive Plan that tightens land regulations, the county still seems willing to stick with it, provided that some obvious inequities are addressed. (If they didn't envision a new plan at some point, why extend the moratorium?)

And finally, there is a revenue source on the horizon that will raise money in amounts significant enough to tackle some significant problems.

Some will contend that had/has it not been for some questionable spending, the county would have the money it needs to handle the demands of routine growth. That's true up to a point, but there is the real possibility that growth in the county over the next decade could transcend routine. Ask anyone in Frederick or Loudoun County, Va. - without special taxation on the books, their treasuries would have been stampeded into oblivion.

And finally comes the contention that the adequate facility fees will be a stake through the heart of affordable housing. Perhaps, but it begs the question: To the average Washington County household pulling in less than $50,000 a year, what new housing is affordable now? Some townhomes maybe, but short of that little can be had for less than $150,000 - well beyond what someone working in a warehouse can comfortably pay.

That's sad, but it is a fact of our geography (and beyond our commissioners' control) that we live so close to the urban overspill that is driving up housing costs.

The course the commissioners are choosing is the best one available. Instead of fighting a losing battle to keep housing costs down, they have a plan to fund schools, which in the end will drive salaries up.

Builders might consider supporting, or at least living with, a plan that will serve education, better jobs and better salaries to the degree where an extra $40 a month won't deter too many people from buying their product.

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