It sounds perfectly reasonable: Communities struggling with clogged roads and overcrowded schools declare they won't allow new development until the infrastructure is in place to handle the additional residents and employees.
They call it an "Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance." One passed earlier this month in Rockville; local leaders are considering one in Gaithersburg and Frederick. And Gov.-elect Tim Kaine recently rode to victory by offering one to communities in Northern Virginia.
In some cases, the ordinances are just a backdoor way to impose "impact fees" on new development. Provide the money to widen a road here, pay for a sewage pumping station there, and anyone can buy his way around the ordinance. While the developer writes the check, most of the fees will probably be passed on in higher prices for homes and offices.
New residents might well consider that unfair. After all, people who moved into Rockville or Fairfax 10 or 20 years ago didn't pay any impact fees. The prevailing wisdom back then was that growth paid for itself -- that the extra tax revenue from the new homes and offices and shopping centers would eventually be more than enough to pay for the needed new infrastructure.
In time, however, communities came to suspect that wasn't always true. Instead of just plain old growth, planning departments and economic development officials began talking about "balanced growth," which meant growth that favored offices and commercial development, along with condominiums and townhouses -- anything but four-bedroom houses for families that need expensive school buildings and teachers and soccer fields.
Then, as taxes continued to rise and schools became more crowded and traffic got even worse, some concluded that even "balanced growth" couldn't pay for itself. So the call went out for "smart growth" -- dense, mixed-use, urban-like developments around Metro stops, meant to cut down on the additional traffic generated by the new residents, workers and shoppers. Now, however, even "smart growth" projects, like those proposed at Metro stops in Vienna and Shady Grove, face anti-development backlash.
How is it that, in the space of 50 years, so many communities have gone from welcoming growth to shunning it, from seeing it as an economic plus to an economic minus? I noodled this around yesterday with Robert Lang, head of the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech, and John McIlwain of the Urban Land Institute, along with Larry Giammo, Rockville's thoughtful mayor and sponsor of the new ordinance.
One explanation, favored by McIlwain, is that growth never really paid for itself to the degree the chamber of commerce boosters wanted people to believe. Each new wave of suburban residents was free-riding on the infrastructure investment of earlier waves. But as the pace of growth exploded, the scheme finally collapsed under the weight of all the recent arrivals.
Meanwhile, as communities grew, the cost of adding the next increment of new infrastructure rose sharply. In the early days, said Giammo, there was still plenty of unused infrastructure capacity -- and even when it was finally used up, it was fairly cheap and easy to add a lane to a country road or add a wing to a high school. But now that those communities are built up, widening a road means buying up loads of expensive homes and offices. It's not just a new wing that's needed at the high school -- it's a whole new school. And the cost of adding a second set of tracks to the Metro's Red line? Simply prohibitive.
In other words, it may be perfectly rational for current residents of Vienna or Rockville to take a stand against new growth. Growth has indeed lowered the quality of their lives, and in terms of public finance, it's been a loser. About the only upside is that the value of their homes has gone up significantly, which won't really help them until they die or move to Sioux City.
What this also means is that in communities that adopt Adequate Public Facilities Ordinances, there won't be much incentive to spend the money to fully resolve those traffic and school-crowding problems. From the point of view of current residents, the optimal level of public infrastructure will be whatever keeps the city just short of the trigger point for allowing new development.
The problem with this no-growth strategy, however, is that while it can work well for individual communities, it would be an economic disaster if every community embraced it, according to Lang. Private companies would be unable to grow because they couldn't attract new employees, while office rents, housing prices, and wage rates would skyrocket, eventually forcing many businesses to relocate to lower-cost areas. Before too long, we'd be faced not with too much growth, but too little -- a much worse problem to have.
Steven Pearlstein can be reached at email@example.com.