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."
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.
"We already have an imbalance," said Robert E. Griffiths, director of technical services for COG. "And with these growth trends, the gap gets bigger in the future. More housing development is happening further and further from the center."
Landsat satellite imagery of the region taken since the 1980s, analyzed and mapped by researchers at the Woods Hole Research Center with NASA funding, illustrates the development pattern.
The images show that until the mid-1980s, development in the region was suburban but relatively focused around its historical centers in Baltimore and Washington. Since then, more development appears as splatterings, much of it on large lots far from the region's core of jobs.
"Since 1986, and even more so since 1990, there is a lot more low-density residential development appearing in outlying areas," said Scott Goetz, associate scientist at Woods Hole. "The scattering of development has become much more prominent."
Planners as far from Washington as Caroline County, Md., on the Eastern Shore, and Berkeley County, W.Va., report an uptick in applications from developers who feel squeezed out of the Washington area by tight home-building restrictions.
"I'm just amazed that people would go back and forth from here to the Washington area, but they do," said Paul Harner, a town supervisor in Liberty Township, Pa., a hamlet about 70 miles north of Washington that finds itself on the front lines of the sprawl wars. "Now that those places in Maryland have stopped home development down there, we realize it's coming up here."
Between 1982 and 2001, the average distance commuters drove daily on freeways and major roads in the Washington region rose more than 40 percent, from about 10 miles to 15 miles, according to the Texas Transportation Institute's widely used survey. The number of hours lost per person to congestion rose from 10 to 34 hours a year.
Automotive emissions, though they have lessened with cleaner cars, continue to keep the region in violation of federal air quality rules and contribute to the "dead zones" of the Chesapeake Bay.
"We're trying to reduce the number of miles people drive because of the emissions and the congestion, which is spreading so fast," said Ron Kirby, the transportation director for COG. "But we haven't been very successful. We have more cars going more miles."
While the housing shortage is pushing home buyers farther out to find an affordable new home, more convenient places for suburban home development have been placed under tight development regulations. More than half the land in the Washington metropolis, from Stafford to Carroll county and from Loudoun to Anne Arundel county, is zoned for maximum densities of one home per three acres, according to a Washington Post survey of jurisdictions.
Instead of stopping developers, however, such restrictions have led them to carve up farmland or woods into home lots that may retain their pastoral look but that planners consider wasteful, especially given the housing shortage.
"Too big to mow, too small to plow," agricultural planner Randall Arendt said of such large "rural" lots.
Driven by high demand and low inventory, housing prices in the Washington region have soared 65 percent over the past five years, according to data from the Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight. The rise in this region is 50 percent faster than national home prices. With the region set to add a million people by 2020 and housing developers leapfrogging outward in search of land to build on, the trends seem likely to continue.
'Good for the Tax Base'
Several jurisdictions in the Washington area have pursued a strategy of attracting more workplaces than homes, but Montgomery County under County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) made it an explicit goal. Duncan proposed -- and the County Council approved in June -- a policy calling for faster job growth than housing growth.
New residents generally cost the county money. The average household in the county pays about $6,500 in property, income and other taxes to the county. But the county spends about $8,500 a year educating the average school student, not including state and federal aid.
"This policy is good for the tax base," Duncan said.
Or, as a Montgomery County booklet puts it: Creating workplaces faster than homes is "the economic development strategy yielding the greatest long-term net fiscal benefits."
County policy aims for employment growth of 2 percent and household growth of 1.4 percent annually. Though it won official approval only this summer, it appears to have been in practice for more than a decade.
In a major 1993 review of county development, planners found that the number of jobs and homes in Montgomery County were "reasonably balanced." Since then, Montgomery County increased its jobs figure by 110,000 while increasing its home supply by 42,000, according to county figures. Assuming the average of 1.5 workers per home, this leaves a shortfall of roughly 30,000 homes.
David Platt, the county's economist, said that assuming that those who work in the county continue to want to live in the county, the gap between the growth in jobs and the growth of homes will create an upward pressure on prices.
Ideally, the housing limits in Montgomery and other suburbs would propel buyers and builders into the District, some planners say, because there they would be close to the jobs core and generally close to mass transit. Thus far, however, the market for homes has moved more outward than inward, as the development maps show.
Montgomery County Council member Phil Andrews (D-Gaithersburg), who voted against the strategy, called the new policy "indefensible."
"It exacerbates two of the most serious problems in Montgomery County: traffic congestion and housing affordability," he said.
County Council President Steven A. Silverman (D-At Large), who supports the policy, acknowledged that "we have a regional housing shortage because of hurdles put up by local governments."
But, he said: "I get elected to represent the people of Montgomery County, not the region. I support broadening the tax base."
Silverman noted that although the policy may drive up home prices, the county has an affordable housing program that at one time was considered a national model. In 2003, developers created 143 units under the county's Moderately Priced Dwelling Units program, and the annual average since the program began in 1976 is a little more than 400.
Duncan and Silverman said it was wrong, too, to assume that when Montgomery's job creation outpaces the number of new homes, the county has to "import" more of its workforce.
Some of the new jobs, they explained, will be filled by people already living in the county and commuting elsewhere. When they find a job in the county, they said, it will reduce commuting.
The critics of the policy are operating under a "false assumption," Silverman said. But he said he has "no idea" how many new jobs would be filled by people already living in the county.
Census data suggest that the number of "imported" workers will be substantial. Between 1990 and 2000, the share of people working in Montgomery and living somewhere else grew 30 percent faster than the number of jobs.
As of 2000, about 154,000 workers were commuting to Montgomery, up from 140,000 in 1990.
"No matter how you dress it up, housing-jobs imbalance generally exacerbates sprawl," said Marya Morris, senior researcher at the American Planning Association.
It isn't just Montgomery, either.
The largest single housing-jobs gap in the region exists in Fairfax County, which spends $7 million a year to bring in jobs. It's part of the county's objective of drawing 25 percent of its real estate taxes from commercial properties instead of homes.
During the '90s, the number of jobs in Fairfax County rose from 404,000 to 533,000, according to county figures, for a rise of 129,000, while the home supply rose by 51,000.
Assuming the county average of 1.5 workers per home, this leaves a housing shortfall of 35,000 homes.
"We've been phenomenally successful at attracting jobs to this county," said Fairfax Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D). "That creates a tax base to finance the kinds of services we want to have."
"It's a vicious cycle," said John McClain, a senior fellow at the Center for Regional Analysis at George Mason University. "Every county, it seems, is trying to load up on jobs but not houses."
'Make Their Neighbors Pay'
Even aside from the effects on sprawl and housing prices, critics blame such policies in Fairfax and Montgomery for, in effect, shifting the burdens of providing housing to neighboring jurisdictions. Some planners call this a "beggar thy neighbor" approach. Its use by the region's most affluent counties strikes some as particularly galling.
"What it comes down to is class warfare," said Michael Replogle, a former Montgomery County planner who works for Environmental Defense. "It's an effort to keep low tax rates in one of the most affluent jurisdictions and make their neighbors pay."
For people who work in Montgomery, affordable housing often means a commute north on Interstate 270. At Human Genome Sciences in Rockville, for example, more than 100 of the company's 1,100 workers live in Frederick County, six go even farther to Hagerstown and three live in Pennsylvania, according to company figures.
In the Clarksburg area, one of four workers lives outside the county, according to local employment figures. When the offices slated to be built in Clarksburg are completed, the proportion living in those northern locations is likely to be higher because the gap between jobs and housing in Montgomery will have grown.
Planners in Hagerstown and surrounding Washington County said the area is seeing a boom in home construction, much of it to serve workers in Frederick and Montgomery counties.
"We haven't had a growth boom since the '40s," marveled Kathleen Maher, Hagerstown's planning director. "With the housing we have in the pipeline now, the number of homes we have will rise 20 percent."
Many will wind up living in places like Hager's Crossing, a planned community in Hagerstown more than 40 miles northwest of Clarksburg and an hour or so away in rush hour. Going home every evening, they will cross thousands of acres of land preserved as "rural" under Montgomery and Frederick planning restrictions.
Prices in Hager's Crossing start at $189,900 for a new townhouse and $300,000 for a new detached home. Several families of Montgomery workers live in the community, which is in the early stages of construction. The sales staff said that as many as half the buyers are coming from Montgomery.
In some ways, these far-flung subdivisions are merely another version of the American dream. But those home buyers who work in Montgomery see it in less romantic terms. To them, it's more like a rational choice to sacrifice time in the car in exchange for an affordable, larger home.
Ibiso and Telema Erekosima -- who both work for Montgomery County, he as a bus driver and she as an administrative aide -- moved with their four children for a simple reason. "It was the prices," Ibiso said. "We looked in Pennsylvania, too, but that just seemed too far."
John Johnson, a computer worker in Germantown who just moved in with his wife and their teenage son, made the same choice. "I couldn't afford anything closer," he said. "My idea wasn't, 'Gee, let me see how far I can commute.' It just ended up that way."
The other day, as he dug into a pizza that had just been delivered to his new house, Johnson estimated that his new commute will be an hour or an hour and a half each way.
"I don't think Montgomery County is against family values," Johnson said. "But they certainly are cutting into my family time."