Don't Like Growth? Look At Stagnation


June 13, 1993|By BRIAN SULLAM

Growth has a bad reputation in Carroll County.

People complain openly and often about the influx of "new" people from other areas of the state that have disrupted the good life in Carroll County. "If only these recent arrivals would return to wherever they came from, things would be much better here" is a refrain heard whenever people talk about crime, congestion or problems in the schools.

Would the county really be better off if the growth of the past two decades had not occurred?

My guess is: Probably not.

Growth certainly carries with it problems, but opponents of growth ought to consider counties where population has either stagnated or declined. Communities such as these are not pretty sights.

Here in Maryland, Allegany County may be the best example of the devasting impact of "no growth."

In 1980, 80,500 people lived in the county. By 1990, the population had declined 7 percent, to 74,900. Its per capita income was among the third lowest in the state, just beating out Garrett and Somerset counties.

Much population loss is the result of the closing of large plants such as Kelly-Springfield Rubber Co. that used to employ hundreds of people. When the jobs leave, people follow.

And when communities lose people, a certain vibrancy disappears and a feeling of depression takes its place, as any recent visitor to Allegany County's Cumberland can attest. There aren't a lot of people on the streets, and the ones you see are older. Most of the younger families and people have left for more promising areas.

The lack of money has depressed the economy. Storefronts are vacant, and many of the buildings that once housed larger chain stores are boarded up. Real estate is hard to sell as there isn't much demand. There aren't a lot of new businesses opening. And Allegany residents who do have capital don't feel confident to invest in the county and export their wealth to areas with more promise, compounding the area's economic woes.

Allegany's decline feeds on itself, and just about everyone agrees that the county's best years are in the past. In contrast, most people in Carroll would say that the county has a promising future.

TC That is not to say that growth is all wonderful, but rather that the living standard in a growing place is better than that in an area with a static or declining population.

If Carroll had remained a county of 60,000 residents, as it was in the 1960s, the population could not have supported the level of public services residents in the 1990s enjoy.

There would be no first-rate public library system. Residents would have to drive miles into Baltimore or Howard counties to find well-stocked library collections.

Carroll County General Hospital would not be the full-service hospital it is without a large population to support it. Carroll residents would have no choice but to travel to Baltimore for major surgery or sophisticated medical treatment.

Carroll wouldn't have its own community college, either. High school graduates and adults seeking to improve their vocational skills would have to go elsewhere.

There wouldn't be seven senior centers. In all likelihood, Carroll's seniors would be lucky to have a minimal level of services because there would not be a sufficient concentration of older people to make many of these services -- such as group meals, recreation and social events -- cost-efficient.

If the population weren't growing, would Wal-Mart, K-mart, Lowe's, Giant Food and other regional and national retailers have opened stores here? As much as people may like the corner hardware or grocery store, the presence of these larger retailers gives Carroll residents more choice and competitive prices.

The influx of newcomers is also responsible for the substantial increase in the county's wealth. In 1980, the value of Carroll's taxable real property was $710.3 million. Last year, it was $2.02 billion -- or almost three times what it had been just 12 years earlier. Even if inflation is taken into account, people have seen their land and houses at least double in value in a relatively short period.

Yes, as property values rose, so did real property taxes. For some people -- particularly older residents living in areas with rapidly appreciating assessments -- these increases have been burdensome. But the opposite scenario -- stagnation in property values -- wouldn't be a pleasant alternative. Not too many long-time residents are interested in selling their property for the amount they paid for it. Indeed, most of them, or their families, expect to make large profits on their real estate. Not too many local governments, in a property tax-based system, have figured out how to have increasing assessments and lower tax bills.

While problems have accompanied Carroll's rapid growth, they have been offset by the improvements in the quality of life that have come as a result of, and not in spite of, the increased population. Many people in Allegany County would gladly take on all of Carroll's problems if they also enjoyed the same benefits.

The solution to Carroll's problems is not to stop growth or close the drawbridge to newcomers.

Rather, the county must make the proper choices to control and shape growth so that the county's long-time and new residents continue to enjoy Carroll's high quality of life.

Brian Sullam is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

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