Why More Growth? Look At Columbia

COMMENT

January 31, 1993|By KEVIN THOMAS

Sometime in mid-1992, while Columbia was in the midst of celebrating its 25th anniversary, developer James Rouse was still defending the city he created.

Despite Columbia's obvious success, both as the economic hub of Howard County and as an exceptional example of social integration, Mr. Rouse understood that critics of his planned community were still out there, eager to ridicule his visionary metropolis.

I'm reminded of all of this now because so often in the extended, heated discourse over growth in the county, one hears the very doubts and criticism that Mr. Rouse still fights to dispel.

In the eyes of no-growth advocates, Columbia is a nightmare of congestion, crime and crowded schools. Further, they say, they don't want mixed-use developments in their communities because that would spawn a string of mini-Columbias.

I contend, as I'm sure Mr. Rouse would, that spawning baby Columbias is precisely what the county needs to maintain the success it has achieved -- in large part due to its world-renowned city. Unfortunately, as much as common sense would lead a reasonable person to conclude that Columbia has proven a boon to the county, adequate measurements of this are difficult to come by.

In our conversation last year, Mr. Rouse contended that since the first shovel of dirt was pitched in 1967, the growth of Columbia has allowed the county to hold its property tax rate at virtually the same level.

And while there appears to be some truth to that -- the property tax rate in 1967 was $2.54 per $100 of assessed property value and today it is $2.59 -- using tax rates to prove Columbia's worth is probably not the best comparison.

Since 1967, there have been so many changes in the way individual property tax rates are figured that a year-to-year comparison is difficult to defend. For instance, there was no piggy-back tax or state funding for schools in 1967 to soften the property tax rate.

The county has both today, and suggesting that Columbia was solely responsible for holding down the tax rate in Howard fails to tell the whole story.

Yet Mr. Rouse has a point. Just consider the growth in the county's assessable base since Columbia was started. In 1967, the county had $35.5 million in assessable properties from which to draw resources. Today, that base is $5.8 billion.

Clearly, the growth in the number and value of assessable properties has benefited the county by allowing it to increase county services without substantially increasing the property tax rate. At the very least, it can be argued that Columbia has more than paid for itself.

To their credit, some County Council members and the county executive want to get across this message, even at the risk of offending some very vocal opponents of growth.

According to Beverly Wilhide, chief aide to County Executive Charles Ecker, Columbia is a perfect example of why growth is necessary in Howard.

"If you grow in a sustained fashion, you can control your tax rate," Mrs. Wilhide said recently.

And in his State of the County address Jan. 12, Mr. Ecker sounded the charge against the no-growthers.

"One of the easiest things in the world is to be against something," he said. "We have to start standing up and be for something. By pooling our knowledge, by sharing our diversity of viewpoints, and by taking the time to listen to every side of an issue, we can find workable solutions to our challenges."

And as much as the no-growthers would argue otherwise, there is a difference between encouraging reasonable planned growth the county, and being in the pocket of some unscrupulous developer.

What is at issue here -- and every resident should consider it carefully -- is how much people are willing to pay for the level of services that Howard countians have come to enjoy. If the assessable base does not grow at a reasonable rate, then how much more in property taxes are they willing to pay?

"If we don't grow in new units and new jobs, we have a stable base," says county Planning Director Joseph Rutter. "Will our costs remain the same? Yes, you can argue that. But what happens is that as the infrastructure ages, buildings need to be renovated, roads need to be replaced and the costs are going to increase."

And who will pay for these things if the no-growthers have their way? All of us. And a greater burden for these higher costs will undoubtedly fall on the residential property owner.

I have yet to hear a no-growth advocate say he was willing to pay this price, either in higher taxes or reduced services.

When I hear that, even I might jump on the bandwagon.

Kevin Thomas is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.

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