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Jay Young

Timing Is Everything

Harford Business Ledger: July 2005

I think the timing of this Harford Business Ledger special section on residential and commercial development [in the July 2005 edition] is very appropriate. With the resignation of Harford County Executive James Harkins, development issues will clearly be one of the greatest, if not THE greatest, challenge facing the next County Executive. The timing issue is also significant in that the county is in the middle of its eight year cycle for comprehensive rezoning.

Also significant, from the timing perspective, is the recent (and, for this county's prospects, fortunate) announcement by the Federal Government that Aberdeen Proving Ground will be expanded rather than down sized -- as originally feared. The circumstances of the expansion of the Aberdeen Proving Ground present a microcosm of issues faced county-wide, and it is important to understand this big picture in order to fully appreciate the upcoming challenges facing the commercial and residential development industries.

From the inception of zoning laws in Harford County in the 1950s, this county has been on the "cutting edge" of what has since become known as "Smart Growth." Smart Growth clusters residential and commercial development in those areas most easily and affordably served by municipal infrastructure, utilities and amenities. In past decades, Harford County has called our Smart Growth area "the development envelope." That's the good news.

The bad news is that our development envelope was laid out in the 1960s and early 1970s in accordance with the planning principles of those decades. For instance, when a comprehensive plan was established in the mid-1960s that recommended a high density of residential units in the new Route 24 corridor, zoning was enacted, subdivision occurred, plats were recorded, and then . . . nothing happened! Harford County was simply too far away to attract high volume residential growth at that time. So everything sat dormant until the 1980s and 1990s when the explosion finally occurred.

Unfortunately, because that explosion occurred over two decades after the planning was initially placed in effect, there was no adequate public facilities legislation in place of the sort understood to be necessary by planners in the 1980s and 1990s -- legislation that would mandate adequate construction of roads, active or passive recreation space and facilities and, perhaps most importantly, schools, as a prerequisite for development approval. The approvals had already been given, and development occurred willy-nilly.

Not only that, most of the development was of such a density that it didn't pay for itself -- that is, the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s cost of providing services to the residential areas was not fully covered by the tax dollars generated by residential unit densities approved in the 1960s. The result is one with which we are all familiar: an exploding Harford County population without adequate facilities which the county can't afford to service.

Compounding that problem was the fact that, although the job base was expanding, Harford County evolved into a "bedroom community" -- people lived in the county and expected to receive county services there (such as education for their children), but drove from it into other municipalities to work. Those other municipalities, not Harford County, derived the benefits of high tax dollars generated by those businesses -- Harford had to provide residential services on its own!

So here we are. How do we solve this problem and address these issues? The solution appears to be to expand our in-county job base and attract high paying jobs, so to generate tax revenues to pay for services and governmental functions. I am happy to report that Harford County has done an impressive job of doing just that. The biggest coup is the previously mentioned announcement that the number of high level engineering and testing jobs at the Aberdeen Proving Ground will significantly grow. Harford County, it turns out, is fortuitously and geographically poised to be the recipient of the tremendous dollars earmarked for spending on security, research, technology, national defense and homeland protection. This county has perhaps the largest inventory of undeveloped land along Interstate 95 of any municipality between Washington and Philadelphia. We are close enough to Washington, D.C., to be convenient to it, but far enough away from it to be safe!

These new jobs will be both high-tech and high-paying, and they will be permanent, because security and national defense issues are not a trend or a fad, but part of the new world reality.

So -- can the solution to all our land use and economic quandaries be that simple? Have we been that lucky? Of course not. Nothing comes without strings attached. And chief among these caveats is this: our housing inventory is now substantially depleted, whereas those flocking to Harford County for the new jobs will need a place to live. There is little room at the inn. Proof that this is a problem can be found in the arguments of those less fortunate municipalities near bases that are losing jobs to us. Those municipalities are conducting a analysis of Harford County and putting forth the (admittedly self-serving) argument that, since Harford County cannot house the holders of new jobs transferred there, those jobs should stay where they are now! Therein lies the challenge referred to in the first paragraph of this article -- how to grow our residential inventory to house the people attracted to our new jobs.

The solution, in my opinion, is to expand the development envelope to accommodate high-end residential development which will pay for itself (in terms of infrastructure) and provide housing for the high-paying technical jobs. The demand exists. Air is coming into the bubble whether you like it or not. We must direct the balloon to expand where we want it to, or it will simply expand on its own. We are running out of residential inventory, but since the demand remains high, developers are racing to the rural areas of the County for which development has not been planned and in which it does not belong. Farmers receive unsolicited offers for their land on a daily basis. That problem must be addressed -- and quickly -- or the balloon will expand into areas where we don't have facilities and we have not planned properly.

Therein lies the challenge facing the next County Executive. The tools are in place to solve the problem -- comprehensive rezoning is in midstream. Will politics allow it to happen? Will anti-development forces make the plan impossible to execute? Stay tuned and, in the immortal words of Bette Davis, "Fasten your seat belts -- it's going to be a bumpy ride!"

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