Study of moratorium demands skepticism

Kai Hagen

July 22, 2004

There's a difference between knee-jerk cynicism and healthy skepticism.

The cynic is predisposed to disbelieve in the sincerity of others' motives and actions, and may express their disbelief with sneers and sarcasm. In contrast, a thoughtful skeptic is cautious enough to suspend quick judgment and engage the subject with an open mind and critical thinking.

I'll admit I was torn between the two responses when I first read about the recent, highly publicized report by Dr. Stephen S. Fuller, of the Center for Regional Analysis, titled "The Fiscal and Economic Impact of Deferred Residential and Non-Residential Land Uses due to the Building Permit and Water Moratorium in the City of Frederick, Maryland 2001-2003."

In his report, Fuller, a professor of public policy at George Mason University in Northern Virginia, concluded the city of Frederick lost net revenues of more than $3.9 million as a "result of the building moratorium implemented in 2001 in response to the water shortage."

To be fair, Dr. Fuller says his assertion is based on the assumption that all "the residential and non-residential projects listed in the City of Frederick Water Allocation Master List" had been built, and that if fewer had been built, "the net fiscal impact would still be positive but proportionately lower."

For many reasons, I'm more than a little skeptical about all those numbers.

But the folks who paid for the study probably felt they got a good return on their investment as soon as they saw newspaper headlines such as: "Construction moratorium cost Frederick County $3.9 million."

If you were wondering, the study was commissioned by the Land Use Council of the Frederick County Builders Association. There's nothing wrong with the association funding such a study, of course, but it's usually a good idea to "consider the source" or "follow the money" as one aspect of evaluating privately funded research that serves the interests of those who provided the funds.

When a large oil company funds a study concluding there's no connection between human activities and climate change, it doesn't guarantee the conclusions are wrong. But I approach the study with a healthy skepticism.

When a major chemical company funds a study concluding that a new pesticide is harmless, it doesn't guarantee the conclusions are wrong. But healthy skepticism is warranted.

Not surprisingly, research comparing industry-funded studies to studies by independent researchers reveal different results. And that's not even taking into account the fact that such interest groups can, and often do, withhold their own studies when they don't like the results.

So, I wondered about other studies done by the Center for Regional Analysis.

Among the recent studies were three funded by the Citizens for Property Rights in Loudoun County. This group, which is a nearby version of Frederick County's own Defenders of Citizens Rights, is, among other things, "against using lack of infrastructure as an excuse to stop growth."

That's one way of saying it's wrong to give weight to the adequacy of schools, roads, water, sewerage, parks, fire and rescue services, and more when considering new development.

Forgive me for being skeptical when I saw that those studies all reached conclusions that serve the interest of the Citizens for Property Rights. For instance, among the concluding points of the study, titled "Loudoun County Finances: What Happened to the General Fund Balance and Why?" was: "From the citizen's perspective, Loudoun County needs to expand its tax base."

Reading carefully through a number of studies done by the Center for Regional Analysis raised all sorts of questions about methodology, biases and basic assumptions. Given enough space, I'd be tempted to detail the most troubling elements. The studies are available to anyone, but few people will hear about or read more than a few simple assertions that, in my opinion, don't hold up under scrutiny.

In a manner of speaking, the study is someone's effort to address the matter of what ails us.

But before research about a new medicine is published, it must pass through a precise and rigorous process of peer review.

Is the method of research appropriate to the topic being studied? Was the data collected complete and analyzed correctly? Does the statistical analysis make sense?

These and other tough questions help ensure the information is good and the conclusion are accurate.

Without it, you end up with the wrong prescription for good health. In the case of Fuller's study, you end up with the wrong prescription for a healthy community.

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