STARTING IN THE 1980s, Fairfax County took out double-page advertisements in the Wall Street Journal touting the county's virtues as a locale for corporate headquarters -- a costly and, at the time, virtually unheard-of campaign of self-promotion for a suburban locality. The ads, slickly produced by professional marketers, were the spearhead of a vigorous economic development program that was astonishingly successful in luring businesses to the county and pumping up the commercial and industrial portion of Fairfax's tax base. There was not, it should be noted, any parallel ad campaign calling for new residents to flock to Fairfax.
Fairfax is exceptional only in the degree of its success, not the thrust of its policy; Montgomery County and, for that matter, many large suburban jurisdictions around the country, have long exercised a preference for -- and strived for an imbalance of -- new jobs over new houses. This tilt makes superficial sense from a fiscal and political point of view. After all, new jobs mean revenue for local governments, while new houses mean intensified demand for services and schools, which drain local coffers and drive up local taxes. But as an eye-opening series this week by The Post's Peter Whoriskey makes convincingly clear, the policy is also resolutely parochial and, to some extent, self-defeating. The result, inevitably, is sprawl.
It is particularly so in the Washington area, balkanized as it is into competing and poorly coordinated jurisdictions. By favoring jobs over houses -- Montgomery's official policy now aims for 2 percent annual growth in jobs but only 1.4 percent annual growth in housing -- the large, closer-in suburban counties do not slow population growth; they simply create a housing deficit, inflate housing prices and deflect growth farther out into neighboring (read: poorer) counties -- even into West Virginia. If there were a motto for this policy, it might be "Think locally, act globally." For in providing new jobs but insufficient housing for new workers, the inner counties not only shunt the financial burden of new residents onto their neighbors, they also promote longer commutes, higher gasoline consumption and more pollution. A map of the splatter pattern of recent development in this region based on digital satellite images, by Gene Thorp of The Post's art department, called to mind a Jackson Pollock canvas: fine for modern art -- disastrous for urban planning.
Perhaps it has always been so, here and everywhere. Local governments in many instances are only reflecting the druthers of their constituents, who are often bitterly opposed to more housing construction -- after they have secured their own foothold, of course. People tend to move to the suburbs to escape the density of urban life, not to replicate it. It's not just jails and sewage treatment plants that people don't want in their back yards; it's other people. But there are good reasons for dense development in near-in neighborhoods and around Metro stations. It gets people out of their cars and onto trains, cutting pollution and gasoline consumption. Metro stations in Fairfax, Prince George's and elsewhere that are surrounded chiefly by parking lots are a waste. We sympathize with the impulse to keep local property taxes in check, especially after the dizzying increases of recent years. But growth has its costs either way you go, and the notion that expansion can be halted is misguided.