Urban growth tenets are legend, not truth

Kai Hagen

March 25, 2004

Eben Fodor, a community planning consultant, wrote a book a few years ago, titled "Better Not Bigger," that examined many of the most common myths and misconceptions about the benefits of urban growth.

While I don't doubt the book has had an impact, especially given the number of other studies supporting its general conclusions, anyone paying attention to these issues in Frederick County still reads and hears these myths repeatedly.

No matter how compelling the evidence, it's difficult for people to question long-held beliefs, especially when some have a financial interest in perpetuating the same old same old.

One could easily dedicate a column, if not a book, to each of the 12 most widely held myths in Fodor's book, but let's take a Frederick County-focused look at the first three.

Myth 1: Growth provides needed tax revenues.

Frederick City and Frederick County have been growing rapidly for a while now. If either the amount of growth, or the way we've been growing, has generated more revenue than cost, we'd either be paying lower taxes by now or benefiting from improved public facilities and services, or both.

Are your taxes lower now? Have your local public facilities and services improved? The fact is that growth can be managed in a way that does not increase taxes or decrease the quality of public services and the quality of life in our community.

But that is not how we have been doing things.

Myth 2: We have to grow to provide jobs for people in the community.

Residential growth and healthy economic development can happen at the same time, but it's a mistake to view them as inextricably tied to each other. For example, the fastest growing U.S. cities don't have lower unemployment rates than the slowest growing cities.

Currently, tens of thousands of county residents commute out of the county, and spend more and more time on increasingly crowded roads.

That's a genuine quality-of-life issue that isn't solved playing a numbers game, where each new house or new job is automatically a boon for our community. More isn't necessarily better, even when it comes to jobs.

We have to think strategically, taking careful steps to build a diverse economy and attract good jobs for people who already live here.

Myth 3: We must stimulate and subsidize business growth to have good jobs.

I would be wealthy if I had a nickel for every time I've heard that a "good business climate" is one with less regulation and lower taxes and more public subsidies than somewhere else. But our quality of life and our real business climate is impoverished if we believe it's that simple.

For example, when a Bank of Boston survey of 4,000 companies nationwide asked why successful, high-wage employers selected their locations, companies ranked "quality of life" as the most important consideration, followed by skilled workers and access to markets. It is no less worth noting that labor costs ranked in the middle, and "regulatory climate" and "taxes" at the bottom.

Other studies have shown that places with the highest "business ratings" usually have lower income growth than those with the worst. In other words, rather than thinking our quality of life is enhanced simply by attracting new jobs, we ought to be looking at the real bottom line: Communities with a high quality of life attract good businesses and better jobs.

Ask yourself or your neighbor about real quality-of-life issues, and more often than not the list will include good neighborhoods, excellent and uncrowded schools, safe communities, a short trip to work, ample parks close by, and the like.

We keep hearing how the weak economy is forcing the Board of County Commissioners to make hard choices, such as reducing already low funding levels for new parks and recreation fields.

This thinking turns the bottom line into a race to the bottom. Commissioner John R. Lovell Jr., for example, recently asked whether or not parks and recreation funding was more important than a new nursing home.

How are we going to come up with the right answers for our future if we can't even ask the right questions?

To get in touch, e-mail Kai Hagen at