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Growth is more complicated that 'for it or against it'

August 27, 2006|by TIM ROWLAND

My own personal hang-up when it comes to elections is that I refuse to vote for any candidate who says some variation of the following: "I want to lower taxes and spend more money on..."

The "on" part doesn't matter. Schools, roads, stadiums, milk for infants. If they say they want to lower taxes, I believe this should disqualify a candidate from saying he would spend more money on anything, because it's dishonest.

They still do it, of course, because that's what the public wants to hear. They want their tax bill lowered and their level of services raised. And the candidates at the recent Washington County Commissioners forum were more than happy to oblige.

Oh, and we're going to control growth - or in other words, the tax base which, if expanded, might be the one way we could plausibly be able to afford more stuff without having to dig deeper into existing homeowners' pockets.

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Only Democrat Hampton Wedlock spent appreciable time talking about the one issue that can solve a lot of our problems in one swoop - high paying jobs, not those of the warehouse type that are so celebrated locally.

Indeed, it was heartening this week to hear airport officials ramp up support of the new, expanded runway as more of an economic engine for the aviation industry and scale back on the idea of a regional hub for passenger air travel - a smart move that has a good chance for success.

But job creation is complex, whereas "growth" is simple in the sense that you can be for it or against it, depending on what you think your particular audience at the time wants to hear.

In reality, growth is far trickier than that. And truth be told, any candidate who tells you he or she is "for" or "against" growth hasn't done enough thinking to be worthy or your vote.

The consensus at the forum was that growth is bad and has to be slowed to a great degree, which is the politically safe thing to say these.

But safe may not be enough for the challengers in this case, because if you believe in putting the brakes on growth, then you really are giving voters no reason to change from the current group of County Commissioners who, unless you happen to be a quarry, have done as good a job of bringing the hammer down on growth as could be expected.

They've denied big subdivisions and slapped a fairly hefty tax on new development. The price of gasoline and escalating property values have done the rest, and to date this year has not seen as many housing starts as some had feared.

To separate themselves from the pack, some candidates would have to come forward and say that growth, properly done, is a good thing. It brings in new people, new ideas, new money and new opportunity.

Property values increase, and yes, taxes on the property do too. But it's astounding that people bellyache over paying a couple hundred dollars more a year in tax, when those homes have appreciated in value by a couple of hundred thousand dollars over the past five years. I, for one, would like to see the value of my home triple yet again, at which point I will be first in line at the tax office.

This is exactly why the issue of compensation for landowners who believe zoning has devalued their property has failed to gain any traction this election. Even if they are correct, at upwards of $100,000 an acre, county taxpayers can be excused for doubting the need for them to pitch in, just so these landowners can have a little more.

Certainly there are trade-offs to growth, most notably the increasing loss of our small townism. A local businessman and long-time Washington County resident recently made an excellent point. He said the people who come into his shop are in more of a hurry. They tend not to be as pleasant. They don't stop and chat. And it also takes him an extra 10 minutes or so to get to and from work. He misses the old way.

But, he noted wryly, so far he has been able to resist the temptation to turn all these new customers away from his door.

Nothing ever stays the same, not in terms of growth, not in terms of life. It's how we live with that change that matters. Artificial controls, moratoriums and regulations can be useful in moderation, but free enterprise has a wonderful sense of irony. Push down something ugly and something even uglier pops up in its place.

When a well-planned subdivision submitted by a quality developer is turned down due to density concerns, some form of that subdivision will ultimately be built. But instead of a modern, self-contained community it will be done on the cheap, just one more scattershot collection of look-alike houses with no amenities.

On a questionnaire from the Citizens to Protect Rights Web site, candidate Pete Waters writes that the choice is of control the problem or allow the problem to control us. I take that to mean taking that which appears to be problematic and turning it into an asset.

Blanket denial of growth is not the answer, any more than is "anything goes." A worthy commissioner candidate will know that there is good growth and there is bad growth and will have the smarts to tell the difference.

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