As Blaine Young is fond of pointing out to his critics, Frederick County is currently growing at its slowest rate since the 1960s. Less than 1,000 residential building permits have been approved in each of the past five years, but the Board of County Commissioners president/radio personality remains hopeful for 2013. His most recent in a long series of letters to the editor declared that “if the economy holds, and if the banks will ease off the flow of construction money, we may actually get to 1,000 homes per year.”
Young and his reliable majority on the board are doing everything they can to nudge that number along. Of the 202 fees the commissioners have reduced or done away with in the name of making Frederick County more “business friendly,” well over half have to do with the planning, zoning and permitting related to development.
Those statistics are enough to set Young’s shrillest critics to shrieking, but the shriekers overlook an important point. And so does the Board of County Commissioners. While policy changes at Winchester Hall can make supply easier to deliver, there’s little the county can do to goose demand.
And there are signs that demand is slowing for the sort of product our zoning and development apparatus largely remains set up to deliver. In a stunning reversal after decades of suburban flight, the District of Columbia’s population has grown by more than 45,000 people since 2000, with 16,000 of those moving in within the last two years. Conservative pundits, when confronted with the District’s boom, tend to write if off as Big Government gone amok. Some have even gone so far as to draw parallels to the post-apocalyptic world of “The Hunger Games,” where Capital City lives it up off tribute from the starving provinces.
But if “The Hunger Games” scenario is all that’s happening, why is the District growing faster than its suburbs? And why is Frederick County flat lining after decades of ever increasing growth as a bedroom community convenient to the nation’s capital?
The reason may have something to do with the profound demographic shift that’s quietly shaking up America. Between the retiring baby boomers and the maturing millennials, a staggering 88 percent of the 101 million new households predicted to take shape over the next 12 years will be childless. And both boomers and millennials, according to recent surveys by the National Association of Realtors, prefer walkable downtowns and small towns or the suburban “town centers” that mimic them with “a mix of houses, shops and businesses.” Only 10 percent said they would prefer “a suburban neighborhood with houses only.” And, according to the Brooking Institute’s Christopher Lineberger, 77 percent of college-educated millennials would prefer to live in an urban core.
Which means that, unless they want to end up foraging for scraps like residents of The Hunger Games’ hardscrabble District 12, Frederick County’s development community -- and their county commissioner boosters -- are going to have to embrace urbanism.
Matt Edens, a television writer specializing in true crime documentaries, lives in downtown Frederick.