It's Time to Plan Backwards from the Harford of 2025
Harford Business Ledger: September 2005
I was in the office of a local engineer the other day and on the wall in his lobby was a huge aerial photograph of Harford County taken about 20 years ago. Needless to say, the county looked vastly different then. The engineer saw me admiring the picture and said, "Quite a few changes, right? I'm sure you can visualize what that same photo would look like today. But now -- try and imagine what that picture will look like 20 years from today!"
The point of his remark was that development and living conditions and growth are not static states: they are constantly changing and evolving. The danger is in ever assuming that "how it is" is the same as "how it will be." 20 years ago, few people contemplated the explosion of growth in this county that was about to take place. It is now our obligation to presume a similar potential growth in the next 20 years -- and, more important, proactively plan for it.
American property law protects land owners' rights to use their property in accordance with applicable zoning (aside from eminent domain condemnation as expanded by a recent Supreme Court decision). In most cases, this means that a property owner's right to develop that land (or sell it to someone else to develop) cannot be obstructed. If there is demand for real estate -- commercial or residential -- people will be aggressive and creative to provide supply.
In other words, development doesn't occur accidentally -- it occurs BECAUSE there is demand for it. And, as I have indicated in past columns, a lot more air is now pumping into the real estate bubble in Harford County. Demand is up, and will continue to be up. More development is coming; stopping it is impossible. What is possible is directing it into appropriate places.
This brings us back to our imagined map of Harford County in the year 2025. It is now our duty to envision what that map will look like then -- what this county will look like in 2025 -- and then work backwards, planning to provide adequate utilities, roadways, schools and amenities to accommodate that growth. There is no "downside" to doing this, because if growth does not occur at the anticipated rate, at least we will have infrastructural planning in place for when it does. But if we don't do the infrastructural planning now, and as a result it ISN'T in place when substantial growth occurs, we will be doomed to having inadequate schools, roadways and utilities.
To some extent, that's what has happened up to now. Infrastructure planning has assumed that "how it is" is "how it will be." But, of course, "how it was" was vastly different from "how it turned out" -- and our present conditions, many of which I have discussed in previous columns, are the result.
As for what's creating the demand? The same as always: pressure to find jobs; to find places to live. Even serendipitous events heighten it -- for instance, the recently announced closing of a significant military facility in Monmouth, New Jersey, and the consequent transfer of numerous highly paid technical and scientific personnel to Harford County, represents a wonderful economic development opportunity for the County, as well as an important source of employment for generations. It also creates the demand for growth.
So, instead of the economic devastation that we might have faced had the government decided to close the Aberdeen Proving Ground, this influx of high-level jobs will bestow the breath of life for which Aberdeen and the whole County was hoping. Those with expertise in government related research and technology jobs now say that there will also be an exponential rise in the number of support and collateral jobs related to those government jobs -- this will be nothing short of an employment boom for the County! In addition, national security and homeland defense research and technology -- the kind of industries we have here both on the Proving Grounds and in the surrounding private business areas -- are no short-term fad. These industries are here to stay -- and grow.
In conclusion, the upcoming comprehensive rezoning process presents an opportunity to include planning for all this expansion. A no-growth position is unrealistic and short-sighted -- Aberdeen Proving Grounds is going to expand; that expansion is going to be "good for Harford County"; that expansion means development. Even if you don't want growth, you have children, and those children need someplace to live and work, and you want that to occur here in Harford County near you. You can't have it both ways!
Therefore, as suggested by the local engineer, it's time to project our minds 20 years into the future and plan proactively for whatever the ultimate could be -- what that map will look like -- because, odds are, it all might just happen.