By Michael Laris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 27, 2010; B04
Montgomery County assigned two staffers to peer into the homes and spending accounts of its big neighbor across the Potomac last fall, and the results -- several months and 63 pages of charts and comparative data later -- arrived Tuesday: Fairfax County residents tend to be richer, are taxed less and have 200,000 more local jobs to choose from.
Montgomery (population 951,000) and Fairfax (population 1,015,000) are the behemoths perched beside the nation's capital, and despite the rhetoric and reality of regional cooperation, the two counties keep a close eye on what they view as their biggest competition for jobs and bragging rights.
But they don't usually do their opposition research this methodically or loudly.
Montgomery officials described the effort as a friendly attempt to learn how the Washington region's biggest county manages its affairs. But the burb-on-burb statistical bake-off also represents something of a proxy in the struggle among Montgomery officials over the county's future growth.
"We should not be afraid to assess where we stand," said council member George L. Leventhal (D-At Large), a pro-business legislator who called for the study. "We should recognize the cumulative effects of our policy decisions, including tax, spending and land-use decisions, on our overall competitiveness."
But council member Marc Elrich (D-At Large), who has been more skeptical of county development proposals, said the push for comparisons has limits. "Some people have Fairfax envy," Elrich said. "The question is, should you or should you not have Fairfax envy? And what do you get for it?"
One key measure that Montgomery officials said helped explain the differences in jobs totals was Montgomery's decision decades ago to set aside a vast swath in an agricultural preserve.
The researchers from Montgomery's Office of Legislative Oversight said the county has saved 38 percent of its land in agricultural preservation programs and parkland. Fifteen percent of Fairfax's total area is in parkland, they said.
Meanwhile, Fairfax had 855,842 jobs in 2007, compared with 654,728 in Montgomery, according to the report.
Fairfax Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon Bulova (D) said she was fascinated with the report but had a quibble: The county's agricultural and forest areas are "closer to the vicinity" of Montgomery's when development limits in the Occoquan watershed are included, she said.
Montgomery officials said they will not shrink the 71,000-acre "agricultural reserve," which has broad political support.
"I believe we must preserve our agricultural reserve forever," Leventhal said. Other areas, though, need a more forceful approach, he said. Votes on two new Planning Board members and a pair of development proposals -- a research-oriented jobs and housing complex near Johns Hopkins University's campus in Gaithersburg and a project near the White Flint Metro station -- will be tests of officials' commitment to spurring economic development, Leventhal said.
"I hope evaluating this data will perhaps make us bolder," he said. "If there's anything good about this recession, it may have gotten us to refocus on the importance of jobs and investment."
Council member Phil Andrews (D-Gaithersburg-Rockville) said the data point to decades of good policies in Montgomery.
"We're literally greener," he said. "Montgomery County has preserved more farmland than any other suburban county in the country." He argues that the proposal to boost science jobs in Gaithersburg will cause too many snarled roads. "The major problem facing Montgomery County residents is traffic congestion, not lack of jobs," he said.
According to the report, it took the average Montgomery resident 32.9 minutes to commute to work in 2008. In Fairfax, it took 30.5 minutes.
Many of the indicators underscored how close the two counties are to each other, and the overall wealth and advantages in both communities.
Unemployment as of October was 5.2 percent in Montgomery and 4.7 percent in Fairfax, roughly half the national average. Median household income was $107,000 in Fairfax in 2008 and $94,000 in Montgomery, compared with $52,000 nationally. Per capita government spending is $4,706 in Montgomery, $390 more than in Fairfax.
The researchers did not try to figure out why things were different, which they will do later with a smaller group of data points.
Transportation issues will be among them. While the counties' roads have roughly the same total length, the tallies of how many miles are driven in each county annually are far apart. Fairfax's total is 10.46 billion miles, 3 billion more than in Montgomery, the report said. Officials said a partial explanation comes from the proportion of commuters who take public transit: 15 percent in Montgomery vs. 9 percent in Fairfax.
It's unclear how that meshes with this piece of data: In 2007, 19.6 percent of Montgomery residents said they "did not participate in physical activity in the last month." The Fairfax figure was 11 percent. Montgomery has a higher proportion of seniors, but other possible reasons aren't clear.
Staff writer Derek Kravitz contributed to this report.