Development numbers tell the real story for Gary


June 21, 1998|By Brian Sullam

CONVENTIONAL wisdom is that Anne Arundel County Executive John G. Gary has opened the floodgates and allowed residential development to overrun the county.

It's wrong.

During Mr. Gary's term, home construction -- as measured by dwelling permits -- has been at its lowest levels in years.

In 1997, the county issued 2,832 permits for residential construction. That was the fewest permits since 1991, a recession year when 2,554 were granted. The peak was 1993, during Robert R. Neall's administration, when 3,828 permits were issued.

Actually, Mr. Gary's development policies have resulted in a reduction of residential permits in each of his years in office.

In 1995, the county granted 3,254 permits. Next year, it dropped to 2,998 and continued to fall in 1997. This reduction came during one of the nation's strongest economic recoveries.

Nevertheless, Mr. Gary's alleged laxity toward residential developers is likely to be a major theme by opponents in this year's election.

County Councilwoman Diane Evans, who hopes to challenge Mr. Gary in the general election, has made this issue hers. She blames Mr. Gary's supposed indulgence of development for school crowding.

To contrast her position with his, Ms. Evans pushed for legislation in the County Council that would have suspended new subdivision approvals until December. The measure failed.

Despite his efforts to keep a lid on residential development, Mr. Gary should not be considered anti-development.

Red carpet for commercial

During his administration, Mr. Gary has laid out the red carpet for commercial development.

Department of Planning and Code Enforcement figures show that during his first three years in office, the county issued 375 permits for new commercial development. The value of these permits totaled $615 million.

By contrast, in the four years before Mr. Gary took office, the county issued 248 permits for new commercial development worth about $427 million.

Mr. Gary has reaped the benefits of the current economic recovery, which Mr. Neall, his predecessor, could not.

The 1991 recession chilled commercial development. It wasn't until about 1993 that businesses regained enough confidence to resume building.

Business is booming

Now business in the county is booming. Commercial real estate investors are tripping over themselves to construct shopping centers, office buildings and warehouses.

Mr. Gary argues that encouraging commercial development is good strategy. Businesses and industry, which comprise about one-third of the county's $14.04 billion assessable base, don't require the level of services that homeowners need.

Moreover, businesses don't require schools, the most expensive service the county provides. This means that businesses pay taxes that more than cover the cost of county services they require.

While commercial and industrial development is great for the county's pocketbook, some would argue that the county doesn't need another strip shopping center, fast food outlet or convenience store with gas pumps.

Controlling development may appear to be the political issue for this year, but that's not really the issue voters need to focus on.

Tax cap invites development

Instead, they should consider the impact of the county's 6-year-old tax cap.

The tax cap, which voters approved in 1992, is the driving force behind development that so many people oppose.

New construction is excluded under the tax cap calculations to determine maximum property tax collections. The cap gives government additional incentive to prod new building.

In the budget year that begins in July, 75 percent of the increase in the county's assessable base is the result of new residential and business construction and the growth of personal property (business-related vehicles, furniture and some equipment).

The growth rate in the county's overall assessable base has been leveling off. Without construction, property tax collections would have also been level, putting the county in an even tougher budgetary position than it is in now.

What voters should be asked

If asked only about the tax cap, most voters would probably answer that they support it. The better question to ask of voters this election season is whether they want to maintain the current tax cap if it encourages a push for new development?

Residents who want to maintain the cap should also understand that the natural inclination of a revenue-squeezed government is to encourage construction not covered by the cap.

That's the reality the next executive faces, no matter who it is.

Brian Sullam is The Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.

Pub Date: 6/21/98

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