Inevitable growth must be orderly

April 04, 2004|by John Schnebly

I've lived most of my life securely on the banks of the Antietam watershed. Over the seasons I've witnessed the ravages of flooding. I've felt the torture of drought. And I've seen the blessings that a properly watered stream can bring to the land.

In plotting a course for growth in Washington County, there is much to be learned from the stream. An inadequate flow of new development can cast a pall over an area and leave it grasping for vitality. A flood of new construction and population can create an overload of demand for taxpayer-funded services, and exact a steep social cost from a community.

One needs only to peer over the mountains to Allegany County to witness the consequences of low growth. Cumberland, since the time when automobiles and trucks replaced railroads as the preferred means of transportation, has seen its economy slowly stagnate.

Exiled by inadequate transportation infrastructure, this community suffered business defections, high unemployment, and loss of its younger work force. No one involved in economic development wants this outcome for Washington County.


On the other hand, you don't have to go far to see the daunting fiscal and social challenges created by unregulated growth. Loudoun County, Va., was, within recent memory, a sleepy agricultural area on the western edges of suburban Washington. As late as 1990, its population and culture was comparable to that of Washington County. And very tellingly, this neighbor had very few restrictions on land use.

Within a decade, this locale attracted a stampede of new development. Its population grew from 86,129 in 1990 to 169,599 in 2000. As a barometer of the demand for public services, one needs only to look at its public school capital budget. In the next five fiscal years, this jurisdiction is budgeting a staggering $817 million dollars for school construction.

Talk about overwhelmed. Are there any among us who can really sense what Washington County would become if our present population of 130,000 became 260,000 in the next 10 years? Do we honestly think we could soundly manage the economics of such rampant growth? Do we honestly think we could recognize the culture of our own communities after such a spurt?

To many, these may seem premature questions for Washington County residents. Bear in mind, though, we seem to be the next stop on the turnpike of growth. Frederick County is just over the Blue Ridge, and Loudoun County is just across the Potomac from Pleasant Valley.

As we grapple to plan for the future, then, maybe we should ask ourselves if we have been focusing on the right questions. Perhaps, the questions are not how much building to allow, or where the construction should occur. My bet is we will see a much more urbanized valley in 50 years no matter what. However, I sense we will be a lot better off if we don't let the transformation occur overnight.

Our leadership needs to promote a healthy pace of growth - not too much too soon and not too little too late. If we can pull this off, hopefully we will sustain our economic prosperity, and preserve our sense of community.

John Schnebly is a former Washington County Commissioner who writes for The Herald-Mail.

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