Frederick deserves more than 'adequate'

Kai Hagen

May 27, 2004

It's not unusual for legislators at all levels of government to bestow virtuous and lofty titles upon new legislative measures.

Examples abound, such as the No Child Left Behind Act and the USA Patriot Act. Even if the legislation falls short of the usually ambitious titles, a skeptic might appreciate the effort to aim high.

Then again, perhaps not, since the title might also be seen as a cynical effort to put a pretty political face on a legislative proposals that are fundamentally inadequate to the task.

In that light, one can appreciate whoever first chose the name "Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance" for local initiatives that require specific levels of service or service capacity, such as schools, roads or sewage and water capacity, as a condition for approving new development.

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, adequate is defined as "barely sufficient or satisfactory" or as "lawfully and reasonably sufficient."

Given there were no such county or municipal ordinances until the last few decades, it could be argued that ensuring minimally adequate public facilities and services was a solid first step in the right direction.

The earliest example of such an ordinance was in 1972, in Ramapo, New York. In response to rapid growth and increasingly inadequate public facilities and services, the town devised the first systematic plan to employ direct controls connecting the adequacy of public facilities to development approvals.

The Ramapo system was legally challenged, of course, but was upheld by the New York Court of Appeals, then, finally, by the U.S. Supreme Court, paving the way for other communities to develop mechanisms for guaranteeing a basic level of essential public services.

Nearly two decades later, in 1991, Frederick County adopted its own version of an Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance, also known as the APFO. Our ordinance addressed the adequacy of roads, water, sewerage and schools.

Since then, the ordinance has been amended four times in relatively small or administrative ways, creating escrow accounts for road improvements, for example, or tightening the traffic generation threshold from 100 trips to 50 trips per development, and exempting senior housing from the school test.

No doubt county residents are better served in some essential ways today than we would be without the ordinance.

And yet, a review of changes in the county over the last decade or so reveals that our APFO is not living up to its utilitarian name and pedestrian goals. It would be difficult, for instance, to argue that roads in the county have not been getting more and more congested. That could have something to do with the fact that the ordinance only covers roads "from the site's planned entrance(s) to the nearest intersection of an arterial road or freeway/expressway."

All primary and interstate highways are exempt, and the county doesn't control state and federal highways, but for almost everyone who commutes "down the road" toward Washington or Baltimore, that's small comfort. Even putting that aside for the moment, however, anyone who drives in and around the county knows that traffic isn't just getting worse on the interstate.

Yet, even the idea of an APFO has its detractors, and too often county residents are in a position of having to defend an ordinance that's barely adequate, or not adequate enough.

Recently, however, there have been proposals to consider fire and rescue services when new residential and commercial development is approved. After all, when such services are stretched too thin, it isn't only new developments that are affected. Another proposal would include parks and recreational facilities. Some communities in other places have included libraries.

And the controversy about our rapidly filling landfill and the location of a potential waste transfer station raises the question about whether or not solid waste disposal should be included.

How well we plan for and deal with traffic, water and sewage, and schools, as well as fire and rescue, parks and waste disposal, has a real impact on our quality of life. Perhaps it is time to change the nature of the discussion and begin the process of developing an "Outstanding Public Facilities Ordinance."

To get in touch, e-mail Kai Hagen at