In 1998, the Charles County Board of Commissioners banned construction of all townhouses, including projects on the verge of receiving building permits. The rationale: The county already had too many non-upscale, cheaply built townhouses occupied by middle-income families. Townhouses were considered fiscal drains requiring public services whose costs exceeded townhouse-generated tax revenue.
Single-family houses were seen as fiscal winners, which has proved not to be the case if all costs are accounted for. In fact, the county’s fiscal imbalance was primarily attributable to lack of adequate business, commercial and industrial real estate development, which produces significantly more tax revenue than public service costs. The townhouse ban lasted only six months.
Fiscal concerns weren’t the only thing playing out in Charles County. The council worried about density, traffic and schools, but it also desired to alter the county’s socioeconomic and ethnic makeup. Pricier detached homes, they reasoned, would attract more affluent households.
Now project opponents have fewer legal options, relying instead on organized citizen opposition, negative public advocacy and advertising, and persistent political pressure on government officials. And flawed reasoning persists, manifested by emotional resistance to change and fear that a project’s uses, size, density and demography will produce adverse impacts.
People worry that new development will compromise the traditional character of their neighborhood or street. They prefer that anything new defer to and replicate, in scale and style, what already exists. Poorly composed, awkwardly inharmonious development should be avoided. But with wise planning and sensitive design, over time the new can enhance the old.
Arlington residents once feared that dense, mixed-use, transit-oriented development in the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor, atop Metro’s Orange subway line, would be detrimental to residential neighborhoods flanking the corridor. Happily, development did the opposite.
Traffic impact, probably the most prevalent growth angst, is justified in some instances. But bumper-to-bumper traffic congestion is not inevitable. It can be mitigated if road network capacity and state-of-the-art traffic management are improved; if transit is available; if walking and biking are desirable options; and if proposed uses generate reduced automobile trips.