Those hoping to close the barnyard gates to future housing growth received a double whammy in Warren County recently. The County will add 100,000 people over the next 20 years but its public infrastructure won’t be able to handle it unless local officials become proactive now. The lessons are important for local officials across the state. Hopefully, no-growth advocates will also take heed.
Concerned about rampant and uncontrolled growth, county commissioners began agitating for draconian controls on growth more than five years ago. Last year, Commissioner Michael Kilburn led a very visible campaign to ramp up impact fees to $10,000 per house to discourage growth in the booming county.
A consultant from Hudson, Ohio, however, seems to have put the brakes on some of that sentiment. The county’s infrastructure can handle the influx of nearly 50,000 new residents through 2010, Sandra McKew said.
That growth, however, will place a significant strain on public services after 2010. The lesson? Infrastructure planning needs to anticipate growth, not follow it. Otherwise, local areas are in a bind.
In Warren County, commissioners were asleep at the wheel as permits were approved during the last decade. As citizens and elected officials began to wake up, their reaction was predictable if not rational.
Some called for a moratorium on new permits. But moratoria don’t solve long-term problems. They are emblematic of poor planning. The issue wasn’t whether the county could accommodate existing development. It could. Rather, the core issue was the county wasn’t planning and investing in its future.
Then there were calls for outrageous impact fees. On the surface, the impact fees were supposed to “pay” for the cost of new infrastructure. But, no matter how local officials sliced that pie, they couldn’t justify adding $10,000 or $15,000 dollars to the existing fee structure based on current costs.
Now, hopefully, Warren County officials will get down to the brass tacks of facing the realities of growth. The people, children in tow, are coming. The question is: What is the rational, appropriate, and strategic approach to addressing their needs? After all, they will be taxpaying citizens of Warren County, too.
County administrators should seriously consider fully costing out their infrastructure. Water, sewer, storm water run-off, and, to the extent possible, roads, should be paid for on a user fee basis with all costs – operating, maintenance, debt service – built into the price of the service and paid on a per unit basis.
Second, county commissioners should consider privatization as a key management strategy. Contracting out water and wastewater services often generate savings of 15 to 20 percent.
Third, the county should consider revamping its zoning code and development controls. Any master land use blueprint for the county will be outdated almost as soon as it is adopted.
Instead, the county should refocus its development regulations on mitigating the negative impacts of proposed developments. Consistency with the master plan should be less important than whether new development would place an undue, identifiable, and measurable burden on the community.
This will focus the county’s planning resources where they should be – looking at actual impacts on congestion, public services, open space, and the environment.
In the long run, these strategies would accommodate growth while protecting core public interests.
Warren County has taken an important first step. Citizens and elected officials have accepted the fact they have a problem, and they are beginning to work proactively to address these issues. The question will be whether they will step outside the box and become a leading example of a better, more effective way to manage growth.
Samuel R. Staley, Ph.D. is director of urban and land use policy at Reason Foundation.