The Price of Keeping Out 'Newcomers'

COMMENT

January 22, 1995|By BRIAN SULLAM

Before Carroll County citizens have a spirited debate over controlling development, somebody better define this word: -Z Newcomer.

At the Chamber of Commerce's "State of the County" luncheon this month, Commissioners W. Benjamin Brown and Richard T. Yates used the term loosely. From the context of their remarks, it was apparent that "newcomer" means anyone who migrates into the county from another Maryland jurisdiction. Reading between the lines of the commissioners' policy recommendations, it is clear they would like to discourage these people from moving into the community.

Mr. Brown wants to double the impact fees on new home construction. Mr. Yates, meanwhile, believes that new development should take place outside the county's existing growth areas.

The implications of both policies would drive up the cost of housing.

While Carroll's population has increased in part due to migration from other jurisdictions, people having children has also driven up the county's population.

Migration from outside added about 19,300 people to the county during the 1980s, according to a state analysis of 1990 U.S. Census. The same data also shows that even if no one from outside Carroll had moved in, the county's population would have increased during the decade by about 8,500: the difference between births -- 16,411 -- and deaths -- 7,896.

In the commissioners' scheme of things, people now living in the county are assets to the community because they don't require additional investment in infrastructure such as schools, roads, parks, recreation centers and libraries. While the commissioners make a big deal about migrants, they neglect to consider the population growth that will continue to occur without them.

Consider Mr. Brown's proposal to double the county's impact fee of $2,800 ($3,500 in the Freedom district). The commissioner said imposing this fee would ensure these undesirable immigrants pay their way.

Left unsaid is that because these impact fees are added directly to the price of a house, they increase the cost of housing in Carroll to everyone, not just to those moving into the county. The dirty secret is that today's kids may be priced out of this market when they grow up.

Imposing large impact fees to finance the construction of new homes discourages the construction of lower-priced housing.

An impact fee is a form of flat tax that does not take into consideration the cost of a house. If Mr. Brown is successful in winning a doubling of the impact fee, nearly 6 percent -- about $6,000 -- will be added to the price of a $100,000 home. For someone purchasing a $300,000 home, the fee would add about 2 percent to the cost.

Since a large impact fee adds significantly to the cost of lower-priced houses and makes them less competitive with homes in adjacent counties, builders will shy away from this type development. Meanwhile, builders won't be discouraged from erecting large homes on large lots since the impact fee won't add much to the price of an expensive home.

Mr. Yates' proposal to build outside the growth areas will only exacerbate this dynamic. Most of the land outside the growth areas is zoned agriculture or conservation, which means that the lot sizes will range from three acres to 20 acres. No builder can afford to erect a $100,000 home on such a property.

If this scheme plays itself out, people seeking to purchase their first homes will suffer, as will low- and middle-income families.

Some residents may welcome these implications. If more young families aren't moving into the county, there won't be a need for all the new classrooms, their thinking goes. But they forget there may be an unwanted side effect. What happens to their children after they grow up and decide to start their own families? Where will they live?

Carroll has an inventory of moderately priced existing housing, but not enough to accommodate the demand. New housing is needed to house Carroll's young adults. If there isn't affordable housing in Carroll, these young families will have to live in other counties or in Pennsylvania.

Is telling your children to move out of the county desirable public policy?

Moreover, a strategy that discourages the construction of moderate-priced housing has troubling economic implications. A county full of high-income families is not totally desirable for employers. They will have to find workers outside the county to fill their lower-paying jobs. They may even have to pay more to attract workers from outside the county to encourage them to travel long distances to work.

Carroll does not have to resort to these mean-spirited policies to manage its growth. There are more palatable solutions that will generate the necessary revenue, without the undesirable side effects.

Next week: Some ways to distribute the costs of growth more equitably.

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

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