No easy solutions to growth problems

September 11, 2005|By TAMELA BAKER


For decades, growth seemed a little stagnant in Washington County. While Maryland counties closer to the Washington-Baltimore metropolitan area were feeling the squeeze of an expanding urban environment, the wave seemed to crash right at the base of South Mountain.

In the 40 years from 1960 to 2000, the county's population grew by an average of slightly more than 1,000 per year, from 91,219 in 1960 to 131,923 in 2000, according to census records.

By comparison, Frederick County's population nearly tripled during that period - from 71,930 in 1960 to 195,277 in 2000.

But since 2000, the number of Marylanders venturing over the mountain in search of cheaper housing costs has caused the county's population growth rate to spike, making Washington County one of the five fastest-growing counties in the state.


From 2000 to 2004, the population has increased from 131,923 to 139,624. From 2003 to 2004 alone, the population grew by 2,700, nearly three times the rate of previous decades.

"The mountain is no longer a barrier," Washington County Public Works Director Gary Rohrer said. "People are willing to drive for the 'good life.'"

Proving Rohrer's point is the fact that the other four fastest-growing counties are Cecil County, on the Delaware border, and the Southern Maryland counties of Calvert, Charles and St. Mary's.

Part of the reason they're driving in the first place, various state officials said, is because a lot of people who work in more populous counties no longer can afford to live there. With the low interest rates that have been attached to mortgages in the past few years, the regional housing market - from Washington west - has been hot. But as populations grow, the pressure on housing stock, and consequently the cost of housing, rises.

In addition to shouldering the cost of providing services for growing populations, local governments around the state are finding that the very people who provide those services - such as police officers, firefighters and teachers - can't afford to buy homes where they work.

In Washington County, the average sale price for a home reached a record $260,506 in July, according to Robin Turner, director of member services for the Pen-Mar Region Association of Realtors. The median price was $240,000, up from the reported $225,000 to $230,000 at the end of May.

"We're experiencing, certainly, what Frederick went through," said Lt. Randy E. Wilkinson, patrol commander for the Washington County Sheriff's Office. "I wonder what's going to happen to my children here - are they going to be able to afford to live here?"

Legislative proposals

It's a problem that has commanded the attention of lawmakers from across the state. Del. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington, led the charge to include a provision forcing the Washington County Commissioners to come up with a plan for affordable housing in this year's bill to revise the county's excise tax on new development. The commissioners appointed a task force to study the issue and make recommendations; its report is due this fall.

"Obviously, we want to see what they come up with" before contemplating any new legislation for the 2006 General Assembly, which begins in January, Shank said. "The affordable housing issue is basically supply and demand," he said, noting that housing costs include factors that governments don't control, such as construction materials manufactured elsewhere.

"The next move is up to the county commissioners, although there are some tools available to the delegation," Shank said.

Shank said he's just as interested in seeing how the county deals with rising tax assessments, and would like to see the county lower its tax rate to give homeowners some relief from higher assessments.

Del. Maggie McIntosh, D-Baltimore City, chairwoman of the House Environmental Matters Committee, went further.

She introduced a bill this year to force local governments to include a provision for "work force housing" in their comprehensive plans. Her committee heard that Baltimore County teachers were moving to York County, Pa., for more affordable housing, that emergency personnel in Anne Arundel County could not afford to live there and that salaries just weren't high enough to pay for homes.

"As everyone knows, salaries have not kept abreast with real estate in this state," Maryland Troopers Association President Kirk Daugherty told the committee. As a result, police officers "are having to move to outlying areas," he said.

Audrey Scott, secretary of planning for the state, asked McIntosh to hold off for a year while her department completed its own statewide study on work force housing, and no further action was taken.

No easy solutions

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