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The price for being unprepared is high

September 18, 2005|By BOB MAGINNIS

Tired of inching your way down Hagerstown's Eastern Boulevard, or alarmed at seeing your property taxes rise as assessments soar?

Well, don't blame the developers or Washington County's new residents for the congestion and the higher costs that go along with growth. Blame the law of supply and demand.

It isn't anything new or mysterious. English economist Alfred Marshall described it in 1890 in his book, "Principles of Political Economy." Simply stated, it says that as demand increases, so do prices, as long as the supply of goods is limited.

If raspberry-flavored bottled water becomes the latest fad, the manufacturer can easily speed up production. If, however, you want a fancy car like the 500-horsepower Dodge Viper, you had better be prepared to pay the $80,000 list price, because it is only produced in limited quantities.

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So it with houses today. There are more people who want to buy homes than there are houses for sale, especially in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area.

What that will mean to Washington County was described in "Growing Pains," an eight-part Herald-Mail series on growth and related challenges that concluded last Sunday.

For an example of why we're facing this problem now, consider this story one local Realtor told me:

An out-of-town client shifted her home search to Hagerstown because she was tired of being outbid for homes in the metro area. She was priced out of the market and so she came west, where there is more inventory at prices that seem, at least to metro-area folks, more reasonable.

She's not the only one. Judging from the surge in local construction, many people have decided that getting a house they can afford makes a longer commute worthwhile.

In this westward movement, Frederick County took the first hit, with its population growing by 30 percent between 1990 and 2000 and another 9.4 percent between 200 and 2003.

As a result, officials there had to plan on building a new school each year for 10 years. The number of sheriff's deputies nearly tripled in the past five years and the housing price squeeze that fueled Frederick's growth began happening all over again, so much so that Frederick County has adopted an ordinance mandating affordable housing in new developments.

In hindsight, James Gugel, the chief comprehensive planner for Frederick County, said the county's zoning codes should have been updated sooner and the county should have added an adequate-public facilities ordinance (APFO) and a workforce housing law.

Washington County has an APFO, but after more than two years trying to revise its zoning laws, local officials came up with an ordinance that they admitted was imperfect when they passed it. The affordable housing issue was only addressed because the Washington County delegation to the Maryland General Assembly mandated a study of it in March, as the price of passing an excise tax on new construction. The commissioners say they were going to do this anyway.

Washington County is also behind in road construction and maintenance as well, with millions needed to upgrade intersections that are clogged now and roads that carry more traffic than they were designed for.

Gary Rohrer, the county's director of public works, said that part of the problems came because instead of rebuilding many roads as growth increased, old farm lanes were just paved over. Rohrer blamed other problems on the lax enforcement of development standards during the 1980s and 1990s.

The Washington County Hospital has only kept its emergency room from being overwhelmed by opening an Urgent Care Center at Robinwood. A second one is planned for Pennsylvania Avenue. A new hospital is planned, but county government finally decided to take the lead only after hospital officials spent two years jousting with the Hagerstown City Council over the project.

There is an ongoing debate over who is responsible for the delay, but while it was going on, building codes changed, according to hospital CEO James Hamill, and plans that have already been drawn will have to be reviewed.

The new hospital is one issue, while getting emergency patients there is quite another. The series points out that the fire/rescue service hasn't expanded with the population and the estimated cost of replacing a 30-year-old emergency communications system has grown from $15 million to $20.8 million.

Then there are the soon-to-be overcrowded schools, which were already facing a backlog of maintenance and reconstruction projects, in part because previous county boards didn't always contribute enough matching cash to get state funding.

Two things are true: The county could not have avoided this, unless all residents had agreed that that was what they wanted to do. But judging by all the grief the County Commissioners heard when they tried to restrict the number of lots that could be developed, there are plenty of people who've been "banking" land, knowing it would go up in value. For them, growth is welcome and, as a result, probably inevitable.

But it was also predictable, and just as President Bush has admitted that Hurricane Katrina wasn't his administration's finest hour, if they are honest, the commissioners will admit that when this wave of growth hit, their "levees" weren't in place.

I'll write more about this subject in months to come.

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