Future of Frederick County is up to us

Kai Hagen

October 23, 2003

Is it inevitable that Frederick will become a newer and, at the same time, more historic version of Rockville -- an increasingly urban core at the heart of a sprawling suburban landscape, extending from one side of the county to the other, with a few parks and pockets of preserved farmland?

Is it only a matter of time?

Are all the discussions and debates about growth ultimately just about how and how fast it will happen, and where it will happen first?

Perhaps it isn't inevitable the county will grow until there's no more room to grow. But there's little about what we've been doing so far that's likely to stop it. And it's a safe bet the county will continue to grow for a while. In that case, we need to be realistic and our elected decision-makers need to be honest about some of the effects of growth that are almost as inevitable.

Over and over again, we hear from growth advocates that imposing meaningful controls on growth stifles economic growth and prosperity, at best. We've heard it so much, the conventional wisdom has been that growth is good, because it "broadens the tax base" and supports increased public services. Putting it politely, the conventional wisdom is misleading.

It's true that developers, Realtors and some other business interests who hype the benefits of growth, do reap the short-term profits of growth. Though they may prosper, however, abundant evidence from across the country suggests that, far more often than not, growth, especially rapid growth, brings less prosperity to the community.

Contrary to the hype, the fact is that expanding the local tax base does not mean improving the quality of life.

Growth includes more roads, but it doesn't result in less traffic. More schools, but it doesn't result in better schools or less crowded schools. A larger police force, but it doesn't result in safer and more secure neighborhoods. More parks and playgrounds in the county, but it doesn't lead to more or better parks and facilities in your neighborhood.

Yes. Growth includes more tax revenues, but it doesn't even reduce your taxes.

It really isn't debatable that new development tends to increase property taxes and other taxes, as growth increases the need for new infrastructure, and new residents are rarely, if ever, required to cover the costs. The entire community -- the existing residents and taxpayers in the community -- has to pick up the rest of the tab. And that is only accounting for the direct costs, separate from a more honest accounting of many additional indirect costs, such as increased traffic, more crowded schools, higher crime rates, reduced air and water quality, water restrictions, loss of open space and the like.

Forget the hype for a moment and look around. Residents of larger communities pay higher taxes, in Maryland and nearly everywhere else. Like most things, urban areas have an optimum size. Studies have shown that when it comes to providing public services the optimum size is between 50,000 and 100,000 residents. The immediate Frederick area is now approaching 80,000 residents.

Cities the size of Frederick are the optimum size in social terms, too. They are large enough to meet people's social and cultural needs, but small enough to be able to participate in the affairs of the community, and small enough to avoid many big city problems that require more government and more regulation.

Made famous on Oprah, Dr Phil Mcgraw, who now has his own television show, likes to get people to confront the issues damaging their lives and relationships. He listens to people as they describe their circumstances, then asks, "Well, how is that working for you?"

We need to confront the growth-related issues affecting our community, consider our circumstances, and ask the same question: How has it been working for us?

And how has it been working in other places?

Right now, planning for growth is essential. Even the same old cookie-cutter planning can reduce some of the problems associated with growth, at least in the short term. But simply accommodating unending growth by planning for it is not, by itself, an effective long-term solution.

Whether it is a little slower or not, a little smarter or not, are we going to continue to grow until we have lost most of what we love about our Frederick County community? Do we have to accept current trends as inevitable? We need to anticipate change over a longer time period than the planning professional's traditional 10 or 20 years. We need to plan, and to act, as if we, and our kids, are going to be around for a lot longer than that.

As residents, as citizens and voters, we have rights and tools that enable us to make real and meaningful choices about out future. It's up to us whether or not to use them.

To get in touch, e-mail Kai Hagen at