Be sure to question builders' perception

Kai Hagen

April 28, 2005

In Harper Lee's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, "To Kill A Mockingbird," Atticus Finch observes during the trial of Tom Robinson that "The witnesses for the state ... have presented themselves to you gentlemen, to this court, in the cynical confidence that their testimony would not be doubted."

While I hesitate to apply his words in a different and less dramatic context, it's hard to forgo such eloquence when it perfectly captures what I hope to convey.

I recently read a commentary by Mark Lancaster, president of the Frederick County Builders Association, in the April edition of Builder Bulletin, which the association sends to its members. I could only assume that Mr. Lancaster composed his message with the cynical confidence that it would not be doubted by his readers.

As a professional trade organization that promotes the industry's interests, I expect the builders association to advocate for a particular perspective. Nevertheless, as the late Sen. Patrick Moynihan once said, "Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts."

In the Bulletin, Mr. Lancaster wrote about the March 16 public hearing of the Frederick County Planning Commission dedicated to the proposed text amendment to the Frederick County Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance (APFO).

The amendment, which was written and submitted by the Land Use Council of the builders association in December, would add a new section establishing a "School Mitigation Impact Fee Premium" (doubling of the current impact fee) to allow an additional 750 homes to be built every year that would otherwise not be permitted due to failing the standard for schools.

Mr. Lancaster said, "This issue will never be resolved as long as the state funding for new school construction remains at 125 percent capacity while the APFO testing requirement stays at 100 percent capacity.

"Simply stated, as long as one or more feeder schools (elementary, middle or high) remains between 100 and 125 percent capacity that particular school district will not pass the APFO test."

In truth, there is no formula that specifically considers the percentage of capacity. The comment that schools must be at some percentage over capacity to qualify has been around for years, but no such requirement exists. If Mr. Lancaster doesn't know that, he should.

Mr. Lancaster also said the council "proposed distributing these 750 lots over the next few years so as not to create a sudden surge in residential building activity."

But the fact is the amendment would guarantee the allocation of 750 "SMIFP units" every year, even rolling over the approved units if and when a project is delayed.

Mr. Lancaster also said that "anti-growth advocates" at the hearing "outnumbered our members by a margin of 2 to 1."

First of all, he has chosen to ignore the request for a moratorium on calling anyone "no-growth" or "anti-growth" unless they define themselves that way. It's simply a lie to continue to label the opposition to certain county plans or developer initiatives as no-growth or anti-growth "forces." It's nothing short of dishonest and shameful to apply these terms to everyone who opposes the builders association on any matter.

For the record, those speaking against the amendment represented Frederick County municipalities, many parts of the education community (teachers, PTA, the Board of Education), the League of Women Voters, individual people and other citizens groups.

And according to a Gazette article about the hearing: "Of the 33 people who spoke at the March 16 meeting ... 27 opposed allowing developers to build the 750 homes by doubling their impact fees."

Expressing that disparity as 2-1 is disingenuous at best, especially considering the others who did not speak but attended in opposition to the amendment, or considering the many letters and e-mails received by the Planning Commission in opposition to the proposal.

And Mr. Lancaster did not mention that the Planning Commission voted unanimously to recommend the Frederick Board of County Commissioners deny the proposal.

Mr. Lancaster should heed the words of John H. Carman, chairman of Rodgers Consulting, a private firm in Frederick County and a member of the Frederick County Builders Association: "Never shade the truth or mislead, no matter how bad the news, and don't deal with clients that might."

Good advice.

The Planning Commission did not kill the proposal. It's in the hands of the Board of County Commissioners, which has scheduled a public hearing for 7 p.m. May 24 at Winchester Hall, 12 East Church St., Frederick.

To get in touch, e-mail Kai Hagen at