By: Gerald Winegrad
Recent Capital articles on the proposed city property tax increase have promoted the need for new development to increase the city tax base. Other stories note news on bay grass increases and also the decline of the blue crab population. How do these articles intersect?
Any argument that increasing residential development results in a net increase in city revenue — such as the arguments advanced to promote the development of annexed land at Crystal Spring, Parkside Preserve and Rocky Gorge — is fallacious. Studies demonstrate that construction of such residential developments results in a net increase in the cost to city government beyond increased property tax revenue to cover more capital construction and public services.
Such developments bring the necessity for costly public school expansion and new construction, new roads and other traffic improvements, increases in public safety (police and fire protection) personnel and facilities, expanded and new parks and recreation facilities, expanded and new libraries and community colleges, and expanded water and sewer systems. Not only must citizens bear the cost of new construction for such new public facility construction, they also must pay the annual costs for operating and staffing such facilities and services.
Local governments recognized these costs and initiated development impact fees for new construction. Anne Arundel County has charged impact fees since 1987, after documenting the necessity to the General Assembly. Two-thirds of Maryland’s counties and many municipalities have such impact fees. They all concluded from hard data and experience that new development does not pay for itself.
For new residential units of 2,000 square feet, the county impact fee is $12,963 and covers only capital costs for roads, schools and public safety. The fee for a new 2,000-square-foot office is $8,170. If new development pays for itself, why charge such fees? And how do such fees help with affordable housing?
If more development pays for itself, why do the most densely developed and populated areas of this state have the highest property tax rates? Baltimore City has a property tax rate of 2.248 cents per $100 of assessment, compared to 0.907 cents in Anne Arundel County. In more rural Queen Anne’s and Talbot counties, the rates are 0.847 and 0.57 respectively.
If new and denser development pays for itself, why does the owner of a home with the same tax assessment pay a property tax of 1.189 cents in heavily developed Annapolis while the owner of an identical home, if it’s on the city boundary but in the county, pays 31 percent less?
Smart growth, such as reconstruction of existing developed areas, should be encouraged to replace older, poorly maintained areas or areas already covered with impervious surfaces. But heavy development on forested open-space areas, such as at Crystal Spring, should not be permitted. The extraneous natural infrastructure costs of the destruction of forests, coupled with the costs of supporting 500 new residents, would far outweigh any tax benefits for the city.
So what does this all have to do with bay grasses and crabs?
Excess nutrients and sediment harm bay grasses and crab populations. Crabs need such grasses to thrive. Replacing forests with development increases these pollutant loads.
The news about “record” levels of bay grasses exceeding the 90,000-acre goal for 2017 was distorted. The goal set in 2000 was to reach 185,000 acres by 2010; when this was not achieved, the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the bay states reduced the goal to 90,000 acres by 2017 and 130,000 acres by 2025. Back in the 1950s, bay grasses covered a much greater area — likely more than double the area covered in 2017.
From 2016 to 2017, blue crab populations decreased by almost 18 percent and the number of juvenile crabs decreased by 54 percent.
Developing more forests and adding more people on these lands will exacerbate pollution problems, hinder grass and crab recovery, and increase tax burdens. More development will only exacerbate the city’s financial problems.
Former state Sen. Gerald Winegrad, who chaired the Senate Environment and Chesapeake Bay Subcommittee, is an environmental activist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.