Developers, the enemy?

October 26, 1997|By Elise Armacost

EVERYBODY LOVES stories with good guys and bad guys. So it's not surprising that complicated battles over land use are reduced to a predictable formula: Underdog Citizen vs. Wealthy Developer.

Indeed, a Phoenix resident used those words in a recent letter to the editor opposing a golf academy in Dulaney Valley proposed by developer Clark MacKenzie.

Developers and builders largely have themselves to blame that people revile them. They are plenty of self-serving ones. And historically the industry's influence has pervaded local government, occasionally in unsavory and downright corrupt ways.

More often, the influence of pro-development forces stems from their ubiquity. They are fixtures at council and board meetings, while citizen activists tend to come and go with the issues. Development is, as Alan Ehrenhalt wrote in Governing Magazine, "the heart and soul of local politics. . . [It] attracts not only the money but also the energy and the resources and the emotion. Development is to local politics what true north is to a compass. In the end, everything points there."

But demonizing the building industry oversimplifies matters.

For one thing, development isn't just rich developers and presidents of building companies. It's plumbers, roofers, electricians, painters, landscapers, real estate agents. If my father decides to carve a lot out of his small property so he can retire a little more comfortably, technically he'll be a developer, too. Clark MacKenzie's wallet isn't the only one that shrinks when that happens.

Even those who don't earn a living from development depend upon it. How many who think of developers as a blight live in a developer-built house? Our tax bills are directly tied to development. Government relies on a certain amount of new growth to expand the tax base so it can afford the amenities we want. Drastic reductions in growth mean higher taxes or fewer services.

Close as it is, the relationship between government and development in the Baltimore suburbs is far less cozy that it was years ago, before episodes of corruption made us more demanding of ethical government. Still the public presumes the worst.

Another letter writer in June summed up the prevailing view: HTC "Developers and politicians work hand-in-hand to assure we have little say in the process. Properties are constantly and quietly rezoned. The development plan process is made with the developer, not the citizen, in mind."

The last assertion is correct. The process of reviewing development plans does -- and should -- revolve around builder, just as the process of reviewing a homeowner's proposal for a new garage is designed to facilitate him rather than his irate neighbor. But citizens are hardly shut out. During review, most governments afford the opportunity for input; Anne Arundel County plans to increase the number of public meetings.

More important, the laws that govern development are supposed to be designed for the public's good, and often are. Rezonings do not occur "constantly and quietly," but on four- or 10-year schedules, with many hearings and much public debate.

And developers do not always win. Anne Arundel County wouldn't let Jack Kent Cooke build his stadium in Laurel. Rural Baltimore County includes some of the most restrictive zoning in the country, one house per 50 acres. Last year it wisely added 11,000 acres to that category -- which did not enthrall developers.

The clout of the "Underdog Citizen" has grown significantly as more governments moved to single-member council districts and as community associations became more politically savvy.

This is a healthy change. But it shouldn't mean that government bends, willy-nilly, to neighborhood pressure to stop a property owner from doing with his land what the law says he can do.

Part of the reason for the antipathy toward developers is that so much of what has been built during the last 50 years looks awful. But development doesn't have to be a dirty word. Development is the Manhattan skyline, Camden Yards and Jim Rouse. Along with the bad apples, the business still includes those who use land for something more than profit.

We can treat them as the enemy and perhaps succeed in stopping them. But I wonder if we will have done ourselves a favor.

Elise Armacost is an editorial writer for The Sun.

Pub Date: 10/26/97

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