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2017 “Living” Space Odyssey – Future Shock: Frederick County’s Looming Housing Deficit?

It seems like only yesterday that all 424,400 acres of Frederick County, Maryland were going to be bulldozed over into one monstrous suburban sprawl. 


Now just four years later we are just about 6 years away from not having enough housing to meet the population demands that our state and county officials project for our region.

I know that this may  seem like an unbelievable statement, but please, bear with me as I walk you through the math.

First let’s look at some facts: Frederick County has the largest land area of all counties in the state,  we have about 230,000 residents.  With about 87,000 households, we average 2.75 persons in each one.  Since 2000 our population has grown at a rate of about 2% annually.

State and county governments both  project that the growth rate will increase slightly to about 2.2% annually over the next 20 years, giving us another  36,000 households by 2030.  These are pretty much the figures that our Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) used in laying out their newly adopted Comprehensive Plan.

Over the course of the last two weeks there has been a lot of banter about this issue through this Blog and other local Internet outlets like the Tentacle and the Frederick News Post … and over airways.  It has all been about whether the BOCC has actually planned to accommodated for this growth.  BOCC President Jan Gardner, Blaine Young and I had a “little go round” on Pattee Brown’s Saturday talk show on WFMD.  She says the BOCC has, while Blaine and I say that they have not.

Here’s how I see the situation breaks down:

1.            As of the end of 2009 there were about 18,300 approved “lots” without building permits issued.  This includes all housing types: Single family, Townhouses, Multifamily (Apartments and Condos), as well as Age-Restricted (55 and older … no kids)

2.            This 18,300 figure includes all projects throughout all of Frederick County including its towns and municipalities with 72 major subdivisions and 404 minor subdivisions.

3.            About 3,800 of these “lots” do not pass the BOCC’s Adequate Public Facilities (APFO) ordinance — school capacity test, etc  – which is more often than not a catch-22 that is very difficult to get out of,  if a project falls into that unfortunate situation.

4.            This leaves a total of about 14,400 approved “lots” that are in various stages of the development cycle.  Conceivably all of these could be ready between now and 2016 (if the property owners wish to sell or develop).  In my opinion this number is actually a good bit less due to several non-APFO hurdles, but I will not argue that point here and use the full benefit for this analysis.

5.            Out of the 14,400 “lots” about 5,600 are single family detached lots and the other 8,800 are for all other types of housing.

6.            There are a handful of properties around the county that have raw zoned land for future development, that are not included in these figures but will only fulfill a fraction of the looming deficit.

7.            In its Comprehensive Plan the BOCC anticipates that  the average annual consumption (absorption) of lots (built on) will be about 1,600 units per year.

8.            Traditionally about 60% of the consumer demand for lots in Frederick County is for Single Family homes with the other 40% going to all other types; but the BOCC is using factors of about 50% /50%; so I’ll stick with that.

9.            This means that an average of 800 single family building lots per year will come out of the base number of  5,600 –  A seven year supply of single family lots … In 2017 Frederick County has no more single family lots … that is unless there is a combined willingness on the part of the 12 different governmental jurisdictions in the Frederick County to replenish the supply by approving new subdivisions at a rate of at least 1,400 lots (800 singles and 600 other) annually for a 13 year period in order to meet their own 2030 projections.  Personally, I don’t see this happening.

10.          Assuming that the BOCC has the political will to do their part, they will have to start right away, because experience with clients is that a typical major project takes about 5 to 7 years to go through all the governmental hoops to get from a raw (sometimes unzoned) state to the point that the first house is completed.  So to fill the looming empty Single Family “Pipeline” that we are facing in are in 2017, this “new attitude” must begin next year.  Personally, I don’t see it happening.

11.          The current mix of other housing unit types has a couple of years longer to go beyond 2017.  So if the political will is not there to address this Single Family deficit,  new comers to Frederick will be participating in what appears to be a planned “social engineering” project.  By that I mean the only new home options will only be in tighter more clustered projects like townhouses, multifamily units …  or maybe even County sanctioned space stations!  Traditionally 40% of our county’s housing needs are met with detached single family units … the BOCC states in their Plan that they think that will shift down to 50%.  And maybe lifestyles will shift a good bit to where this figure is even less … but the math shows that it could be close to zero very soon, if action is not taken.

After all these years of accommodating the extremely successful anti-growth movement in Frederick County, the “Pipeline” has almost been bled dry.  Our community is actually on the verge of facing a housing crisis that will impact its ability to attract new clean white collar jobs … which is the real bottom line here … when new businesses come to our community they need to know that there is a variety of housing choices for the workers they bring with them, or they look elsewhere.  So it all comes down to providing opportunities for our local economy to flourish, while at the same time keeping sprawl to a minimum and making the most of our urban centers.

Do our elected officials have the political will to plan that far ahead to address this looming problem?  Other than one member of the BOCC, so far they have no even admitted that there is a problem.

Now, these stats may get a break for a year or so due to the current slowdown in the economy, but that will not last forever … and usually when a housing market has been held down for a while the pent-up demand eats up inventory fairly quickly as things stabilize.

Personally I think the chances of our BOCC changing their tune to part-take in approving their share of 1,400 units a year is very unlikely.  It is clear to many that they are so proud of their plan that they refuse to acknowledge the issue.  Instead they continue to look for opportunities to close every gap in the subdivision and zoning regs no matter how minute it may be.  The layer of restrictions are so complex that I am not even sure a bunch of fresh BOCC faces could unravel then … that is if they wanted to.

It is a problem … and there is much more to discuss on this issue.  What do you think? … and Why does this matter?

Click on the chart on the right … it outlines the dilemma that this Comprehensive Plan places in front of our community. There are a lot of nuances to all this, but the fact is that this “plan” for our future does not come close to accommodating  the needs  for 2030 goal of 36,000 housing units.  The math says that  our county is  18,000 units shy of meeting the demand.  Some of this will come from projects that may pass APFO, some will come from existing zoned land like the Summer farm — a recent city annexation, but even with these, we are way short.

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