Looking at Growth without the Rose-Colored Glasses

Looking at Growth without the Rose-Colored Glasses

Under this plan, development could become a zero-sum game.

Potomac’s growth rate could vary widely, depending on which version of the revised Annual Growth Policy (AGP) is adopted.

The Potomac Master Plan would still govern how the region grows, but the implementation schedule of that growth will be determined in the coming months as the Park and Planning Commission and then the County Council decide which plan is in the county’s long-term interests.

The Planning Commission is in the process of revising the AGP, the policy element which defines the county’s Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance (APFO).

While over the past decade or more, the bi-annual review of the county’s growth policy has been mostly an academic exercise, the current Planning Board, under the leadership of former County Councilmember Derick Berlage is considering changes that could alter all future development in the county.

The Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance was initially intended to ensure the county could provide adequate roads and school to a new development. If either was judged to be too full, new development could not occur — moratorium.

But some planners say the growth policy has become cumbersome, using complex mathematical formulas to analyze traffic flow and school capacity. Critics have pointed out that while the growth formulas indicate there is capacity to support new development, anyone can see that traffic jams and overcrowded schools are the norm.

Traditionally, the Planning Board would transmit its recommendations to the county board by June 15. It has not done yet so.

Noting the radical changes which the planning board is recommending, it has decided to lengthen the time for discussion and to hold one more public hearing.

“The kinds of changes that the board is now talking about are very significant,” said Park and Planning Chair Derick Berlage.

One of the radical changes proposed could throw out the concept of adequate public facilities, and at the same time provide broader controls on growth. The board is increasingly favoring the idea of simply saying that the county is full.

“There is a very strong argument to be made that there is no capacity in this county,” Berlage said. But, embracing the theory that new development is necessary for a dynamic economy, it can’t declare a complete moratorium.

In some ways starting from the premise that the county is full could give the planning board more leverage to dictate where that development should occur.

“If our premise is that, county-wide, we’re full, even though one spot is OK, there isn’t capacity,” said Park and Planning Vice-Chair, Wendy Perdue.

As a way of controlling growth, the planning board could consider setting a ceiling on how many building permits would be allowed in the county from year-to-year. Those permits would then be allocated on a region-by-region basis.

Under this plan, development would become a zero-sum game, if one area gets permits, another area will not.

The commission has discussed allowing the county’s growth rate to be one percent. This would allow the issuance of approximately 3,100 permits per year.

One stumbling block to this plan is the so-called “pipeline,” projects which have been approved but not yet built. At the one percent rate, there are approximately seven years worth of residential projects and 11 years of commercial projects in the pipeline, said Karl Moritz of Park and Planning.

The average residential project stays in the pipeline for five years, but that that number varies widely. “The average is not typical,” Moritz said.

It is possible to generate a fairly accurate forecast of how many units will come out of the pipeline in a given year, said Moritz.

Planners are considering a one-percent annual growth rate, minus the number of projects forecast to come through the pipeline.

The next question would be where to allow that growth to occur.

Planners would categorize each geographic area, and that categorization would determine how much of the county’s growth would be allocated to each.

Because Potomac is very near the middle as far as how much growth is allowed in its master plan and how many transit options it gives residents, it could be placed in any of several different categories.

Depending on which way Potomac is defined, it will be allocated more or less of the building permits in a given year.

Therefore, implementation of the growth allowed in the Master Plan could be accelerated or greatly slowed — theoretically, no new development could be allowed in Potomac in a given year.

In grappling with how to direct development, the commission has based its discussion on a dedicated impact tax.

Under this plan any new development would be forced to pay a tax into two funds, one for roads and the other for schools. However, in March, the County Council turned down an education impact tax.

An impact tax for highways, already on the books, isn’t working as well as had been predicted. According to Edgar Gonzalez of DPWT, who testified before the commission about DPWT’s perspective on the AGP, the transportation impact tax had generated less than 50 percent of revenues expected.

“There are too many credits. There are too many exemptions,” Gonzalez said.

Planning Board discussions have favored impact taxes and have focused how to implement them.

One challenge is how to split the county up and how to define the regions (see sidebar).

After deciding how to draw the map, the commission must still decide how to fill it.

“The one thing that needs more work is what the criteria would be for the council to decide where capacity should go,” Berlage said.

The most rapid growth, and lowest impact taxes, would likely fall near Metro stations. The slowest growth, and highest taxes for new development, would fall in the rural parts of the county.

“We’re going to allow a modest amount of growth in areas where it is going to least aggravate the situation,” Berlage said.

The problem is determining where, exactly, that is. Even if Metro stations are the best choice for development, “You really can not say that all of those Metro stations function equally well,” Wellington said.