Out of Control Policy Blog

Growing Too Fast? Just Ban It!

Relatively inexpensive Prince George's County, Maryland has experienced increased interest from prospective homebuyers as housing prices continue to skyrocket in the Washington D.C. metro area. But concern about rapid growth in recent years has prompted the County to put the brakes on development in its rural areas. Yes, the dreaded "M" word - moratorium - resurfaces:

    "The Prince George's County Council approved a bill yesterday that slows residential growth in the county's most undeveloped region by imposing a one-year ban on new applications for subdivision plans.

    . . . .

    Building has accelerated in the area. According to the county planning department, about 2,800 acres were subdivided for construction between 2001 and 2004. In the first half of 2004, more than 900 acres were subdivided.

    "We need to have some slowdown while we're developing a clearer sense of what we want the rural tier to look like," said council member David Harrington (D-Bladensburg), one of the bill's sponsors."

In other words, "we haven't done our jobs." See what Reason's Sam Staley recently had to say about building moratoria in Ohio:

    "What few citizens and elected officials seem to realize, however, is that growth moratoria are bold evidence of planning failure and poor political leadership.

    . . . .

    Many citizens blame developers and home builders for tapping out local infrastructure. Without the incessant demand for new construction, they believe, local road, water, and sewer systems wouldn't be bursting at the seams.

    In truth, these cases demonstrate the failure of local planning. In Hudson's case, the city complained that new development didn't "pay its way," but this is a reflection of poor management about how to price sewers and other infrastructure. Dozens of other cities face high growth, but don't resort to draconian caps on new investment to keep it under control.

    . . . .

    Sound infrastructure planning doesn't stop growth, it accommodates it.

    Sound infrastructure planning also isn't a short-term fix. It's a long-term process that requires diligence, commitment and professionalism. This is why growth moratoria are unsuited to solving a community's infrastructure problems."

And commenting on proposed growth caps in Chula Vista, CA, Reason's Owen Courreges adds this:

    "The idea of a growth cap may appear prudent at first blush, but it's still a wall that establishes boundaries where none need exist.

    Instead of simply walling off a city, growth caps function by partitioning off outlying areas, thus shielding them from the normal workings of the real estate market. By itself that might seem harmless, and yet like most policies that fight the market, this one hits homeowners hard – in their pocketbooks.

    Since it obviously takes land to build homes, restricting the amount of land that can be developed will invariably increase the cost of any land that isn't so regulated because land is a scarce resource. The less that's available, the more valuable the remainder becomes."

If Prince George's County leaders are serious about looking to other counties in the region -- such as smart growth pioneer Montgomery County, MD, or perhaps Loudoun County, VA -- for ideas on growth management, then families looking for more affordable homes will probably need to keep on driving further and further away. As the Washington Post noted in its August 2004 series on sprawl and smart growth in the D.C. metro area (see inset box for full list of articles):

    "[B]y creating housing shortages, the policies push developers, home buyers and renters farther and farther away to find available land and more reasonably priced houses.

    This migration, in turn, produces longer commutes to work, more road congestion and the destruction of remote natural habitats, planners say. The extra auto travel contributes to other troubles, including air pollution and the "dead zones" in the Chesapeake Bay. And, most of all, sprawl.

    . . . .

    Planners as far from Washington as Caroline County, Md., on the Eastern Shore, and Berkeley County, W.Va., report an uptick in applications from developers who feel squeezed out of the Washington area by tight home-building restrictions.

    "I'm just amazed that people would go back and forth from here to the Washington area, but they do," said Paul Harner, a town supervisor in Liberty Township, Pa., a hamlet about 70 miles north of Washington that finds itself on the front lines of the sprawl wars. "Now that those places in Maryland have stopped home development down there, we realize it's coming up here."

    . . . .

    Driven by high demand and low inventory, housing prices in the Washington region have soared 65 percent over the past five years, according to data from the Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight. The rise in this region is 50 percent faster than national home prices. With the region set to add a million people by 2020 and housing developers leapfrogging outward in search of land to build on, the trends seem likely to continue."

Of course, we at Reason would prefer to see a completely different approach to growth management -- market-oriented planning. See Urbanfutures.org for our comprehensive collection of resources on this innovative approach.

Leonard Gilroy is Director of Government Reform


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