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Investing in Sprawl : The Role of Government

Space for Employers, Not for Homes

Residents Driven Farther Out as D.C. Suburbs Lure Business and Limit Housing

By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 8, 2004; Page A01

First of three articles

In the pages of its master plan, the suburb of Clarksburg seems perfect.

The old farming crossroads off Interstate 270 in northern Montgomery County is being transformed into a town-size development of homes, shops and offices, all according to a detailed scheme crafted by county planners. The developers are dressing up the project with traditional home architecture and a village green, and they call their creation "a new American classic town."

Residents Madeline Hanington, left, with her dog Bilbo, and Alana Taylor stroll through still-developing Clarksburg. (Photos Ricky Carioti -- The Washington Post)

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Yet for all its proposed charms, the Clarksburg plan embodies the kind of basic imbalance that is setting off waves of inefficient land development around Washington.

The master plan approved by Montgomery County leaders permits enough office space and shops to employ 40,000 workers. But it deliberately does not provide for enough housing for all of those workers -- fewer than 15,000 new homes. By the time Clarksburg is completed, homes for thousands of workers will have to be built elsewhere.

But where? The answer resounding from county governments across the Washington region these days is: not here.

Attracting workers -- but not the homes for all of them to live in -- is not official policy just in Clarksburg and Montgomery County; it has increasingly become the practice across the region. Local governments believe this makes financial sense because workplaces pay more taxes and use fewer government services than homeowners do. And governments maintain this imbalance through zoning and other development controls.

But by creating housing shortages, the policies push developers, home buyers and renters farther and farther away to find available land and more reasonably priced houses.

This migration, in turn, produces longer commutes to work, more road congestion and the destruction of remote natural habitats, planners say. The extra auto travel contributes to other troubles, including air pollution and the "dead zones" in the Chesapeake Bay. And, most of all, sprawl.

"Many local governments haven't controlled growth, unfortunately -- they've deflected it," said Gerrit Knaap, a planning professor and the director of the National Center for Smart Growth Research and Education at the University of Maryland.

Developers are often blamed for sprawl, and as self-interested businesspeople, they often lobby for road and home-building projects in outlying rural areas. But to a large extent, they are only catering to the housing demand in the Washington region within the constraints placed on them by local governments.

"Developers do what makes them money -- they build what they find to be profitable," Knaap said. "But what they find to be profitable is determined by consumer preferences and public policy."

During the 1990s, the number of jobs in the Washington region grew much faster than the supply of housing, according to a study by George Mason University's Center for Regional Analysis, leaving a shortfall of 43,200 homes. The Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, which compiles job and housing projections based on reports from each of the local governments, says the number of jobs in the region will increase by 550,000 this decade, while the number of homes will rise by only 312,000.

Assuming the typical 1.5 workers per home, that leaves a shortfall of 82,000 homes.

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