Monthly Archives: November 2016

Anne Arundel can escape its growth Ponzi scheme

Appearing in The Capital, September 18, 2016

Anne Arundel County has been fortunate over the years to have steady economic opportunities, due in part to our location near large metropolitan areas as well as a strong federal and state job base. These economic opportunities, along with a rich history, quaint historic areas and miles of coastline on the Chesapeake Bay make Anne Arundel an attractive place to live.

County residents want significant limits on growth to maintain their quality of life. They also insist on high-quality services like roads, public safety and education — along with low taxes. In the short term, the county can attempt to solicit more money from the state and federal governments, borrow more and promote land development to increase the tax base. But the federal and state governments have their own fiscal problems, and so are contributing less. Borrowing, such as with the recent lengthening of bond terms, has a limited effect. This leaves growth as the primary tool for raising the needed revenue.

Growth in and of itself is not bad. When done in a long-term, fiscally sustainable manner, growth builds wealth for residents, business and the county. The 2009 General Development Plan discusses balancing land use, growth and fiscal policies, but much of the development in the county continues to be auto-centric, even in the targeted growth areas like Parole and Odenton.

We often forget that auto-centric suburban development is an experiment that has never been tried anywhere before. We assume it is the natural order of things because it is what we see all around, and in our collective psyche is the “American dream,” a non-negotiable way of life that must be maintained at all costs. But it is only in the last two generations that we have scaled places to the automobile. What we are finding is that the underlying financing mechanisms of the suburban era operate like a classic Ponzi scheme, with ever-increasing rates of growth necessary to sustain long-term liabilities.

The root of the problem is that auto-centric development, in which residential and commercial areas are widely separated, requires tremendous amounts of land as well as infrastructure that is costly to build and maintain, while yielding very low tax revenue per acre. As long as strong growth continues and new revenue is generated to cover the short-term costs, we have the illusion of wealth because we are delaying infrastructure maintenance and personnel costs. This is the current state of Anne Arundel County.

Even with robust growth, we are starting to see the effects of these long term-liabilities, as indicated in the General Development Plan:

“Over the years, due to rising construction costs and other factors, the county has struggled to keep pace with the ongoing demand for maintenance, renovation and rehabilitation, and replacement of existing infrastructure and facilities that have been in place to serve the existing population and employment base.”

For citizens, this is most visible in the roads and traffic resulting from this development pattern. We cannot build our way out of congestion — we don’t have the land and most certainly don’t have the money. Yet we continue to promote development that virtually requires the use of an automobile.

The General Development Plan has goals, policies and actions to produce fiscally productive development, yet our specific regulations that developers must follow still produce the same patterns: greatly separated residential and commercial areas; big, dangerous roads; throwaway strip malls and parking lots. All this requires lots of driving. And it does not generate enough tax revenue to maintain the required infrastructure. We need to change these regulations to return to a traditional pattern of development in which neighborhoods are at a human scale with appropriate mixed use — places where people can walk or bike for many of their daily needs — while having viable transit options to connect these neighborhoods with the Baltimore and Washington metropolitan areas. There are still many places like this remaining in the country, such as the suburbs built before World War II. We should be emulating them for a fiscally sustainable future.

This essay was part of Becoming the best is a series of essays exploring the question of what it would take to make Annapolis and Anne Arundel County “the best.”

The Kobayashi Maru Test

Last night, the Annapolis Planning Commission faced their Kobayashi Maru test. How will they decide whether access to the Rocky Gorge planned development is via Aris T Allen Boulevard or Yawl Rd: place the lives of Rocky Gorge residents in grave danger by turning off and on a highway or assuring the destruction of the Oxford Landing neighborhood with 48 homes worth of traffic down their main street?

Followers of this development have been watching this issue come to a boil slowly over the last two years. But, for those not familiar with the development and this issue specifically, let me recap.

Rocky Gorge is a planned development of 46 units of single family and townhouses south of Aris T Allen Boulevard. For a good overview, you can see the site plans here (76MB) or search for project PD2016-001 on the Annapolis eTRAKiT project tracking site for all the project details.

location

The project has a long and sordid history with many, many complicated facets. It began with two annexations of land in 2003 and 2005 followed by development approval (SE2005-11-547) and initial grading, the financial crisis of 2008, bankruptcy and sale to a capital management firm and most recently restarting the development in 2014. This history, while important to how we got to this point, is for the most part, water under the bridge, not to mention that the more you dig into understanding the history, the more questions arise. That said, one of the limitations placed on the development by the annexation agreement was no direct access from Aris T Allen Boulevard. However, that was predicated on a “relief road” south of the development, but for many practical and environmental reasons was never, and will never be built.

As the design and review of the restarted development progressed, due to the access limitation in the annexation, Yawl Rd was the only way in and out, straight through the center of the Oxford Landing development built in the late 1980s. And of course the residents objected, so resolution R-33-14 to remove the annexation restrictions was introduced to the City Council. If passed would open the door to alternative access via Aris T Allen Boulevard.  It wound it’s way through the process and was ultimately passed. I wrote about it here and here and the Planning Commission,  Transportation Board, and The Capital also thought it was not a good idea. Once the restriction was removed, it went to the State Highway Administration (SHA) for a decision as they “own” the road (MD 665). After an additional traffic study and meetings with the SHA, access was granted with addition of acceleration and deceleration lanes.

yawl_access

Rocky Gorge – Access Via Yawl Rd

Once this access was granted by SHA, the site plan was substantial altered to change the access from Yawl Rd to Aris T Allen. As such, the project went back to the Planning Commission, which brings us up to date for the meeting last night and the Kobayashi Maru test.

665_access


Rocky Gorge – Access Via Aris T Allen (right in right out)

The developer’s representative Allan Hyatt gave a long and somewhat tedious presentation. He is a lawyer and every presentation I have seen him make to a city Board or Panel is treated in language and actions like a trial, explicitly stating everything for the record along with expert testimony, even though the Planning Commission does not officially recognize “expert witnesses” (a point of snickering with the chair). This was a public hearing so a number of people spoke, residents, representatives of ARTMA, the Annapolis Neck Peninsula Federation, Oxford Landing, and Alderwomen Finlayson/Pindell-Charles, indicating significant safety problems with either access scenario – deadly car crashes on Aris T Allen or kids run over by cars on Yawl Rd.

Kirk

Those were the only two choices on the table: 1. Approve the application as submitted (design with ingress/egress to Aris T Allen only, other than a pedestrian/emergency connection to Yawl Rd) or 2. Deny the application and revert to the prior approval (design with ingress/egress via Yawl Rd only). Virtually all the Planning Commission members expressed frustration with these equally bad choices. There must be alternatives that would not be unsafe for users Aris T Allen or residents of Oxford Landing, but how? Like Captain Kirk, they chose a different way: leave the public hearing open indefinitely and allow the applicant – who fortunately saw the writing on the wall – to look for alternatives.

It is my hope that all parties involved can think about innovative solutions that attempt to mitigate the compounded mistakes and prior planning decisions that lead up to this scenario and hopefully learn a lesson and apply it future developments. The suburban design pattern of cul de sacs and hierarchical road networks is a detriment to incremental growth that is so important to a healthy Annapolis as it was intended by design to be static and does not scale well. See this short video for a primer on incremental development and why it is important. Much of downtown Annapolis and inner West Street developed this way and has been better off for it.