- The Washington Times - Friday, February 7, 2003

During the past decade or two, Washington-area residents fed up with crowded schools, congested roads and high taxes slipped away as quietly as they could into far-flung communities in West Virginia and Maryland. They found what they were looking for: a peaceful, rural lifestyle within a long but still-achievable commute from downtown Washington or its suburban employment centers.

They weren't alone in recognizing the potential of such areas as Jefferson and Berkeley counties in West Virginia and St. Mary's County in Southern Maryland or Queen Anne's County on the Eastern Shore. With the rising cost and diminishing supply of land in the Washington area, along with the low or no-growth policies in many closer-in counties, builders are developing their projects farther and farther from the Beltway, often running into opposition from the residents who were there first.

Where development already has taken place, new residents have filtered in with larger paychecks, commuting and clogging roads and straining rural resources, including water supplies, sewer systems and schools.

In addition, demand for housing has driven up the prices and tax assessments of existing homes, and long-term residents worry that they will be taxed beyond their means. Young family members face diminishing prospects when it comes to buying homes of their own in the communities in which they grew up.

Long-term residents of these distant communities resent being transformed into Washington suburbanites, yet some of the relatively new residents are leading the fight against increased development.

"We like to call them 'LOBs' around here, as in 'Last one over the bridge,' keep the rest out," says Steve Cahoon, development review chief for Queen Anne's County. "The opposition to real estate development really comes from a mix of people, but probably the most vocal are people who have relocated here within the last 10 years. I've heard some of these new residents say in meetings, 'We moved here to get away from this type of development.' "

Arguments break out at public hearings and before planning and zoning boards over what constitutes "smart growth" and how to control development, along with its associated problems.

Scot and Vicki Faulkner, residents of Harpers Ferry, W.Va., for the past 16 years, say they prefer to think of themselves as "preservationists" rather than "no-growthers."

"Tourism is one of the fastest-growing sectors of the economy. Here in the West Virginia Panhandle, we have some unique historical and natural sites which we don't want to see undermined by a sea of vinyl houses," Mrs. Faulkner says. "We advocate good growth with setbacks and easements, placing housing with forethought about the environmental and historic impact of each project."

The Faulkners express concern particularly about the impact of the fast-growing population on the roads, schools, libraries, energy resources, and sewer and water systems.

"Our local high school is already severely overpopulated, and there's no money in the pipeline at this point to expand it or build another," Mr. Faulkner says. "While requiring builders to pay impact fees might help, they are usually not high enough. At one development in nearby Charles Town, the builder was asked to pay $700 per house. Obviously, that's not nearly enough to solve the problem."

In Queen Anne's County, traffic is a primary concern. The western part of the county serves as the Washington area's connection to Atlantic beach towns such as Ocean City and Rehoboth, Del.

"The Chesapeake Bay Bridge used to be looked at as a barrier to development, but it's not as big a barrier as it was," Mr. Cahoon says. "The 'Reach-the-Beach' initiative made it easier to get to us along with the beach. The problem is, in areas like Kent Island there's only one road [Route 50] on and off the island, there are geographical constraints which won't allow for more roads to be constructed."

Keeping school capacities in line with residential development is also a big concern in Queen Anne's County, where the planning commission has recently introduced an Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance (APFO) designed to keep the level of services stable or improve them. The APFO can also serve as a control mechanism that can stop developments if builders fail to meet the requirements.

According to Richard Moser, president of the Kent Island Defense League, "The problems associated with growth cross the whole spectrum. Several of the growth areas identified by the state of Maryland are in Chesapeake Bay-protected areas and in areas which are currently farmland. Another issue is taxes and financing. Improvements to the infrastructure which are needed because of new development are being funded on the backs of the existing taxpayers. Our tax assessments are skyrocketing."

"Another issue is water," Mr. Moser says. "Last summer, about 500 people in Queen Anne's ran out of water and had to spend thousands having new wells dug. Schools in the county are already overcrowded with [temporary classroom] trailers everywhere.

"Another issue is that public officials want to upgrade the sewage treatment plant, which already dumps sewage into the Chesapeake Bay," he says. "Basically, what they are doing is expanding the plant to accommodate new growth at a cost of $35 million, only $10 million of which will come from the state."

Mr. Moser also cites the need for more firefighters and police officers to serve the growing population.

"Right now, we have an overwhelmed and under-budgeted police department, and we have two volunteer fire departments on Kent Island," Mr. Moser says. "The fire department will need to become a paid department at a cost of $4 million to $5 million a year. This is just one more example of the overall problem, which is how to pay for the increased needs which come along with the new homes and families."

Given the problems with infrastructure and services that accompany residential development, counties closer to Washington have already restricted growth. More distant communities are still struggling with how to control development while not harming the local economy. Each area also has a unique set of circumstances that affect the solutions that can be attempted.

"The state of West Virginia has been losing population for decades, with most parts of the state trying everything they can to keep people," says Steve Bockmiller, chief planner for Jefferson County. "Only about a half-dozen of its counties are experiencing growth, which means the state government is not as concerned with this problem as we are locally. Zoning authority has been in the hands of towns and municipalities, but that didn't include large rural areas of the state. Jefferson County is the only county which has zoning authority on a countywide basis, which gives us some control, but the state government has even more control.

"Recently, we got authorization from the state to start requiring developers to pay impact fees, so we will be able to introduce those in the next few months, which can help us pay for schools and other services," Mr. Bockmiller says.

Mr. Cahoon says, "There's no such thing as a county road in West Virginia, though, so every road is either a state road or a private road. That limits our ability to plan for roads in our area."

According to Jane Peters, executive director of the Jefferson County Economic Development Authority, "We're trying to balance the residential growth with corresponding business development, which generates a higher tax revenue and helps provide services to residents. At the same time, we're trying to attract businesses which will provide more jobs for local residents, particularly high-tech companies on both the manufacturing side and the software and Internet side.

"We're also looking into increasing tourism as a way to help the local economy," she says. "We're 58 miles from the Beltway, an easy hour-and-a-half drive from D.C. when it's not rush hour, and we have the MARC train providing service to the Martinsburg area, so we cannot ignore the fact that eventually we have to be concerned with planning for increased development. Almost everyone agrees this area is ripe for growth and needs to grow, but it needs to be done properly and it cannot be too fast to be controlled."

The Faulkners believe emphasis on tourism and hospitality combined with preservationist policies will be Jefferson County's salvation.

"We don't have the infrastructure to handle a lot of residential and commercial development, and we don't have the technology advocates that Virginia and Maryland have to attract that industry," Mr. Faulkner says. "What we do have are historical significance and an abundance of natural beauty. We need to develop our competitive edge based on those two factors. The county government needs to embrace the uniqueness of our county and use that uniqueness as a leverage for economic activity."

Residential growth is outpacing business development, which has turned Jefferson County into a so-called bedroom community, where more than 50 percent of the population commutes to Maryland and Northern Virginia for work.

In St. Mary's County, Md., the figure is a smaller 30 percent.

"Our local economy is driven by the Patuxent River Naval Air Station, and it really took off during the 1980s when several thousand people were moved here from other areas," says John Savitch, director of the St. Mary's County Department of Economic and Community Development. "We've also seen an increase in the number of retirees moving here, along with a portion of the population commuting to the D.C. area.

"But the number of commuters is much smaller than in Charles and Calvert counties, our closest neighbors," Mr. Savitch says. "Over 70 percent of our workers work within the county, while in Charles and Calvert counties that number is closer to 40 percent."

The Navy's presence has brought jobs to St. Mary's County, but it has also created a demand for housing, retail centers and other services.

"We've seen a lot of growth, but it hasn't been explosive growth," Mr. Savitch says. "It's been manageable so far, mostly because it's tied to Patuxent and to the contractors clustered around the base. St. Mary's County has been designated as the second technology base for the state of Maryland, and the county has definitely changed over time. We now have more high-tech/high-wage jobs, with the average salaries at Patuxent in the $70,000 to $80,000 range.

"The jobs are closer to home, so we don't have the same problems with commuters in and out of the region," he says. "No big superhighways are planned for the future, either, so we don't anticipate an influx of people similar to West Virginia or to some of the closer-in counties in Maryland."

St. Mary's County is not immune to problems associated with an increasing population, but the presence of the naval base has been a significant asset.

"The state of Maryland made a substantial investment in roads and schools when the Navy relocated here," Mr. Savitch says. "Virtually every school in the county was expanded or rebuilt, and significant improvements were made to the roads. There are strong debates here about growth and a concern with preserving the rural nature of the community. We need to make sure the school capacity and housing availability stay in balance with each other."

Mr. Savitch sees St. Mary's County taking a balanced approach to growth in the future.

"We've watched very carefully some of the counties to our north and in Northern Virginia so we can be certain not to repeat some of their mistakes," Mr. Savitch says. "We feel that the people who both live and work in our county are more committed to the county. We do have some restrictions on growth in place and will use impact fees to make sure the infrastructure keeps up with housing. A big concern is that while our housing values are rising like everywhere else in the region it's becoming more and more difficult for first-time home buyers to get into the market. We're trying to expand homeownership programs, which will help low- to middle-income families get into houses."

Tax assessments have risen in St. Mary's County and every other jurisdiction in the Washington region, but in most places tax rates have remained unchanged or risen slightly. In Jefferson County, St. Mary's County and Queen Anne's County, officials say that programs are in place to help fixed-income and low-income residents keep up with their tax bills, so they are not in danger of losing their homes due to high taxes.

Queen Anne's County, particularly in the western portion of the county, has become a bedroom community for commuters to Washington and Baltimore. A number of vocal political action and community groups in the area focused on real estate development issues during the last election, and five new county commissioners were elected who are expected to place controls on development.

"Queen Anne's County has seven areas of growth which were designated by the smart growth policies of former Governor [Parris N.] Glendening, which basically follow the pattern of existing developments," Mr. Cahoon says. "These smart growth areas have basically been like a bull's-eye for national builders to come in and put together tracts of land for big housing developments. There's lots of opposition to this, with the advocated solutions falling basically into two groups: One group wants to limit building permits to historical growth patterns. The second group wants to use growth management tools to control development."

Queen Anne's County commissioners are working on a growth control ordinance and adequate public facilities ordinances as possible impediments to development.

"We also impose impact fees on builders, but basically these fees are not a control mechanism since they are simply a cost the developer will pass on to the consumer," Mr. Cahoon says. "Impact fees are used to maintain services or provide additional services."

Zoning ordinances are also in the works, which will require developers to build some affordable housing units in Queen Anne's County.

"The rising prices have made it more difficult for teachers, policemen, firefighters and people in service industries to afford to buy homes here," Mr. Cahoon says. "Since no one wants to build affordable homes, we're finding we need to mandate that just like Montgomery County does."

The Kent Island Defense League and other community groups would like to see further steps taken to control growth.

"Several of the newly elected commissioners pledged to limit the number of building permits to their historic rate of 400 per year, and we hope they will honor that pledge," Mr. Moser says. "Last year's commissioners adopted a public works ordinance and increased impact fees, but those are weak measures. We'd like to reduce the size of the growth areas. We'd also like to revise the zoning ordinances to lessen the impact of development on the environment and the quality of life in our community."

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