Allegany County residents are suddenly being over-loaded with terms such as Pro Growth, Anti Growth, Smart Growth , Sprawl and Anti-Sprawl. These debates should be welcomed in a county that has seen 20 years of population loss. Our county can now receive 20,000 new residents without exceeding the population that we saw in the ’50s. As we enjoy this period of growth, we must also be aware of the challenges that we will face. The citizens of the 21st century have different needs and demands than those living in the 1950s.

Our growth must be carefully planned and balanced, or we will see a larger population, but a decline in the quality of life. We seem to be experiencing residential growth, with little or no growth in business and/or household income. National statistics show that residential growth costs $1.27 in needed services and infrastructure, for every $1 collected in property tax. Business growth, however, offers 47 cents’ profit for every $1 of property tax collected.

Although we have waited 20 years for growth to arrive at our door, it seems that we have done little to prepare to receive it. Our county’s capital budget does not look like a budget preparing for rapid growth. The infrastructure needed for growth does not appear to be in place. During the first four months of 2006, there has been a total of 196 sewer over-flows in the state of Maryland. Sadly 177 of those were in Allegany County, dumping over 136 million gallons of un-treated sewage into our streams and rivers. The often-talked-about County Water Loop has never progressed beyond the talking stage.

Population increase will also add to the problems of school over-crowding, traffic and our landfill. These are all solvable problems, but the remedies come with a rather high price tag. We will also face increased demands on our under-manned, under-equipped, volunteer fire departments. These units are a valuable resource to their home areas, but are not prepared to give proper protection to the planned, high density, multi-story developments. Once again, this problem can be solved, but at a price. The costs to county government to address these impacts will be enormous. If we subsidize residential growth (which does not pay for its needs through taxes), without balancing that growth with business and wage growth, we will see a need for a large tax increase, or a decline in services and infrastructure. We definitely need the growth in our new housing market, but it is a fiscal reality that it must be accompanied with a growth in business and income. Housing alone becomes a negative financial investment.

The pace of growth must be kept in line with our ability to manage it, and to provide the needed services to create a quality of life that all citizens seek. We need a quality comprehensive plan that truly reflects the visions of our citizens for their future. We need to close some of the numerous gaps in our zoning regulations. Regulations that were written during a period when we were begging for growth could prove quite harmful once growth arrives. We need only to look to the counties to our east, copy what has worked properly for them, and avoid the mistakes that they made. If the tremendous growth experienced in our sister counties was so good, why are their citizens looking to relocate?

In early June, dozens of Allegany County citizens will be participating in a growth planning exercise known as Reality Check. During her recent visit here, Secretary of Planning Scott, spoke highly of this exercise. Citizens from four Western Maryland counties will meet to analyze the growth that is anticipated for our area. They will discuss the good, and the bad of such growth. They will share ideas. Our future is much too important to not have a clear plan in place. It is imperative that the citizens of this county are given the opportunity to share their vision, and help create a plan to carry us into the next 10-20 years. Allegany County will grow, and it will change, so let’s make sure that the end result is what the citizens truly desire. There is a lot of work to be done, so we need to get an early start and be pro-active, rather than playing the never-ending game of catch-up.

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