Posts Tagged ‘ Comprehensive planning ’

East Frederick Rising: The Future of Modern Urban Renewal

Can the east side of Frederick become a Dutch wonderland on American soil?

During the summer of 2005, I had the opportunity to travel with my husband and children to Holland to visit extended family.  Prior to our trip, I read with trepidation that the Netherlands is the most densely populated country in the European Union.  I pictured my small children being swept out of my hands and into Amsterdam hash bars on a tide of boisterous crowds rivaling Times Square on Thanksgiving weekend.

I was way off base, as it turns out–about the crowds and the hash bars–because the Dutch are masterminds at urban planning and engineering.

The streets of Amsterdam were bustling and alive, but not crowded.  In the nearby suburb of Wassenaar–where my brother-in-law lived with his family–it was a 30-minute stroll from the center of the charming village square through suburban neighborhoods to the farms that ringed the outskirts of the community.  We spent a sunny August afternoon on a pristine beach just a 20-minute bike ride from his home–again, busy and lively, but not unpleasantly crowded.

Best of all, it is possible to travel to just about anywhere in the Netherlands by way of bicycle on dedicated bike paths criss-crossing the entire country.  Perhaps as a result of the heavy dependency of the Dutch on bicycle travel, obesity did not appear to me to be a problem there (this despite the fact that most food groups in Holland are served fried into some sort of pancake).

I would never have guessed at any point during our all-too-brief time in the Netherlands that nearly 17 million people are crammed into such a tiny jewel-box of a country.  To this day, I have no idea where those millions of people were tucked away.  (I also had trouble spotting the very discreet Amsterdam “coffeeshops” until they were pointed out to me.)

My thoughts have returned to Holland many times as I’ve watched Frederick’s political pendulum swing back and forth between pro-growth and no-growth administrations.  In Amsterdam I saw proof positive of an existence that allows for the best of both worlds:  a vital and breathtakingly beautiful urban city community, surrounded by bucolic villages and farms.  An existence with room for all kinds of people living in all kinds of environments supporting all kinds of lifestyles.

I have a tendency to become enchanted abroad, so this Utopic vision of Dutch life is no doubt partially a result of travel-dazzle and jet lag, but only partially.  If the Dutch can create such beautiful clean-living harmony for millions of people on so few square miles of land (land that they largely artificially engineered out of reclaimed river delta) why can’t we create something similar here in Frederick?

Frederick may have a chance to do exactly that with East Frederick Rising, a 2,000 acre mixed-use smart growth project located between Carroll Creek Linear Park and Frederick’s expanding airport just west of the Monocacy River.  Billed as “Mid-Maryland’s Economic Hub for the 21st Century,” this project is planned to marry the walkability of Frederick’s historic downtown with modern technologies and sustainable methodologies to create a community very unlike typical suburban developments.

East Frederick Rising is the next natural step in building on what was begun with Carroll Creek Linear Park, a beautiful destination born of Ron Young’s determination and indomitable will to solve the problem of recurrent flooding in the city and at the same time create a park drawing locals and tourists alike.

It may seem counter-intuitive for a city the size of Frederick to undertake a project of such substantial scope in a lackluster economy.  However, the stars are aligning in a manner that suggests this project is entirely feasible:

  • Millenials: East Frederick Rising dovetails perfectly with the zeitgeist of the millennial generation:  urban living in walkable, vital communities served by public transit, rich in restaurants and cultural activities, and surrounded by environments that support active lifestyles.
  • Political Will:  Smart Growth is here to stay, and East Frederick Rising could potentially be a marquee project setting the bar for sustainable development in Maryland going forward.
  • Location: Frederick is well within commuting distance of Baltimore and D.C. and airports serving both, and 2,000 acres is a massive tract of land for an urban renewal project.
  • Capacity: We’ve had conversations at MacRo with several regional developers (all deep of pocket and rich in experience) who are enthralled with the character and charm of downtown Frederick and chomping at the bit to develop innovative mixed-use multifamily projects here.  Without exception, they would all like to see a high-end grocery store located in the east end first, but that may be putting the cart before the horse.
  • Jobs potential: The Frederick region has long been nurtured as an incubator for the bio tech industry, and with our highly education population has the potential to become a hot-bed of start ups and entrepreneurs.

Combine developer money, TIF financing, political clout, cultural shifts to urban living, a charming historic town in a highly-desired location, and steady job growth…and what do you get? A sweet spot where the impossible begins to seem possible.

The Urban Land Institute conducted a workshop to develop recommendations for implementing the vision of the project, and presented its findings to the City of Frederick yesterday.  Judging by the comments of aldermen and the public alike, most saw the potential in the project, and understood the importance in having a vision and a plan to ensure that the fate of east Frederick isn’t left to the vagaries of market forces.

It goes without saying, East Frederick Rising will need a stalwart champion (or champions) with the vision, determination, patience, and clout of the Carroll Creek Linear Park advocates lead by Ron Young decades ago.  And of course, this is a project that will also take decades–perhaps as many as five of them–to come to full fruition.

If executed true to the vision, East Frederick Rising has the potential to be an astounding mixed-use community that rivals anything Maryland has ever seen:  a modern marvel in urban renewal that compliments and co-exists intimately with Frederick’s historic heritage and is locally sustained by its rich agricultural assets.

It’s enough to make even the Dutch a little envious.

The author:  Kathy Krach is a commercial sales and leasing agent with MacRo.  Thanks to this post, she’s been afflicted with a strong hankering for international travel.

2014 Frederick County Election Update: Land Development & Growth are Hot Issues [Access the Digital Edition of the MacRo Report]

Has it all gone up in flames? Access EXCLUSIVE digital edition only content of the Spring MacRo Report!

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Click here to learn why Rocky thinks “After all these years one has to ask What Difference does it Make?”

What is this thing they call a Comprehensive Land Use Plan?

In the world of real estate, it is not “what you see is what you get!”

Very often in my meetings with prospective land buyers and property owners, I find that many tend to make very broad assumptions about the possible future uses and development potential a tract of vacant land may have.

This also goes for neighboring property owners who discover (often after the fact) that the vast amount of pristine open space they have been enjoying from their kitchen window for the last several years is on the verge of receiving final approval for a substantial mixed use land development project.

I often sit in public hearings (as I did just last night) and hear local residents come out in protest of a site plan that has been proposed. In many cases I feel bad for those speakers as some claim that they were not aware that a nearby property could be developed. 

Privately owned land that has laid vacant for years may have been master planned for development for years. But for many that vacant period can lead some to believe they are entitled to see that property remain the same for as long as they live there.

In all of these cases it comes down that ancient Latin phrase Caveat Emptor.  Very familiar to lawyers, real estate professionals and others engaged in the business of transferring property.  In English it translates to Let the Buyer Beware.  

“Beware of what?” some may ask. 

The “What” is something most residential Realtors are not familiar with, as well as a surprising number of commercial real estate brokers, if they are not engaged in the land use arena of real estate development. 

It is known as the comprehensive land use plan, which is the foundation from which all land use decisions are based upon at a local level in Frederick County, Maryland. 

Every property owner and would-be resident of a community should understand the purpose of the county’s comprehensive plan and the impact it may have on nearby property in their community … and all real estate agents/brokers who sell and/or lease any type of real estate should make it part of a disclosure package given to their customer and clients.

Not unlike a majority of jurisdictions throughout the nation, this document is supposed to be influenced and developed from several parties on a local level:  residents, county planners, nearby communities and municipalities … and of course, local elected officials.  But there is also a significant amount of direction that is driven by the State of Maryland Department of the Environment and its office of Planning which mandates that such a plan be developed in the first place.

It’s meant to be a twenty year road map for state and local governments to use to deal with the inevitable population growth in the region.  This includes the proper mix of housing, commercial development, traffic patterns, public utilities, schools, parks, police protection, etc. over that period.  Additionally in recent decades there has been a strong push to carve out and create corridors of open space, protect prime agricultural land and other areas targeted for land conservation. 

The state requires that this plan be updated periodically at a local level to keep up with changes in demographics, socioeconomic trends, the economy and other matters that may significantly influence the dynamics of a complex plan.

A comprehensive land use plan is what lays a foundation for where certain zoning designations are placed — what I’ll call the allowed “here and now” uses.  So a property can be zoned for an agriculture use, but “master planned” for a future residential mixed use development in the comprehensive plan.

As an area grows and maximizes the current zoned area, the “master plan” will provide good cause for a possible change in zoning to accommodate that growth in surrounding areas.

So it is important to understand that there is a very clear distinction between the long range outlook for a region provided by a comprehensive plan and the allowed “here and now” uses of a zoning designation.

Frederick County’s current comprehensive plan was adopted in the final year of the Jan Gardner administration of the Board of County Commissioners in 2010.

The state mandate at the time was for the local governments within the county plan for an increase of 36,000 new households by 2030.  How they got there was pretty much up to the county.

A significant component of such a gargantuan effort requires a collaborative planning effort among the county, its twelve municipalities and other jurisdictions such as Fort Detrick.

In Frederick County, due to the very polarizing and significant influences of the growth verses no-growth advocates (interestingly it is hard to find anyone who will openly state that they are a hard-line Growther or No-Growther), this process can and has become more of a political football which has often left out many key players.

So for one to think that politics have not driven a zigzagging course in recent years is just naïve.

For example many have forgotten the fact that there was minimal communication, and much less collaboration on the part of the Gardner Administration with these other jurisdictions, as they set forth to craft a plan that was completely unrealistic in being able to meet the 36,000 unit target.  It included the removal of future development land use designations from about 400 properties in the Comprehensive Plan.

At the time a very restrictive Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance (APFO) was imposed that left many zoned properties locked in a development no-man’s land … not to mention the fact that the nation had just been introduced to one of the worst economic recessions in 70 years.  With all that said many did not take notice of the inadequacy of the 2010 plan.  

Once the change over to the Young administration took place, a different view was taken of the comprehensive plan.  The APFO was reformed to provide a “pay-go” provision for development projects and many of those properties that were down zoned were revisited and restored the zoning that was taken away just a few years earlier.

At the end of the day as the dust is settling on the last Board of County Commissioners in the Frederick County, there appear to be about 21,000 qualifiable future housing units* now in the development pipeline. 

With historical absorption rates (building permits issued per year) of between 1,000 and 2,000 units per year not expecting to change over the next 16 years, it is very realistic to expect that the county will still fall short of the state’s 36,000 housing unit target.

Some believe that the personal leadership styles of both Gardner and Young have burned bridges on both sides of the debate over growth in Frederick County … and now with both throwing their hats in the ring as candidates for this coming November’s race for the first ever County Executive position, we can all be assured that the topic of growth will still be on the table.

So I suggest a bit of Caveat Emptor to all Frederick County voters as this election season heats up!

The authors: Rocky Mackintosh is President of MacRo, Ltd., a Land and Commercial Real Estate firm based in Frederick, Maryland. He also writes for TheTentacle.com.

* according to statistics supplied by Rodgers Consulting.

Butting Heads Over Housing Growth … Again?

Once again Frederick’s no-growthers and pro-growthers are at odds, but ultimately market forces will prevail.

They’re baaaaaaaaack….

The past few election cycles have resulted in Frederick’s county commissioner administrations see-sawing between vastly opposing viewpoints on comprehensive planning.  The Jan Gardner administration continued the two-decade long tradition of implementing policies to restrain housing development with their 2010 Comprehensive Plan; Blaine Young’s administrative effectively won office by promising to unravel it.

Both camps have fierce—one could even say zealous—defenders in the Frederick community.

(It would be an interesting exercise to calculate the percentage of Letters to the Editor in the Frederick News Post during the past decade devoted to hot debate of housing development and growth planning in Frederick County.)

The rumored housing recovery, combined with the Young administration green-lighting a number of long-standing residential projects that were stricken from the 2010 Comprehensive Plan, appear to have sparked tensions between the no-growthers and the pro-growthers once again.

No-growthers are sounding alarms that Frederick County will be as congested as Montgomery County before Blaine Young leaves office; pro-growthers appear to be dismissive of concerns raised by current residents such as potential school overcrowding and financing of road infrastructure.

The development and housing construction industries in this region are not enjoying this pendulum swing any more than Frederick County voters are.  The best and brightest developers and builders investing and operating within this region favor a far more predictable political climate.

Frederick County’s fractious land planning battles may be scaring away the very experts most qualified to creatively and effectively resolve the county’s impending housing shortage without harming the quality of life we treasure here.  Frederick’s next administration and new county executive will have their work cut out to gain back the confidence of, and mend fences between, county residents and the development community.

Wherever you fall between the extremes in this debate, it’s important to remember one thing:  the free market is driving the train.  Local government control of the pace of regional housing development—in one direction or another—is an illusion at best.

Regardless of how many new residences are approved and stuffed in a development pipeline, they won’t be built and sold until there are people who want them and can afford to buy them.

Despite how tightly a comprehensive plan is locked down to constrain new housing supply, if the housing market continues to eek its way back from the pits of recession, real estate values will climb and pressure to grow will increase.

To that end, many who reside on the “Nay” side of the the growth debate often forget Frederick County is part of a vibrant metropolitan region that despite periodic economic downturns has always faced the pressures of growth.

Let us not forget, it was the O’Malley Administration (not necessarily known as a promoter of growth) that mandated a target of 36,000 new housing units to be achieved in Frederick County by 2030.  And it was the Gardner Board of County Commissioners that adopted a Comprehensive Plan they claimed would meet that goal.

The problem was that the very restrictive housing policies (i.e., the APFO test for schools to name one) nearly made that goal impossible.  This of course is one of the primary reasons that there was a flood of housing project annexations into the city back in those days, which continued into the Young Administration.

For the record, the nearly 17,000 units of housing currently in the Frederick City & County residential pipeline are less than half of what is needed to meet the State of Maryland’s projections for Frederick’s population growth during the next 20-odd years.

In a previous post about multi-family development in Frederick County, we took a stab at how the residential absorption rate may play out in Frederick County up to 2030.

Figure 1 (click to enlarge) makes several assumptions … or maybe better known as SWAG’s:

  1. The local economy will continue to trend in a positive direction but with a market correction in the early 2020′s.
  2. The process of gaining federal, state and local government development approvals will continue to slow the overall project start times.
  3. Housing development project financiers will remain cautious in lending practices, and while projects may receive government approvals, land development and housing construction starts will be much less speculative than in the first decade of the 21st century.
  4. High land and development costs of current and future projects will prevent builders from flooding the market with inexpensive housing—the margins just aren’t there.

The SWAG scenario shown in Figure 1 projects a total of 29,500 new home building permits to be issued between 2011 and 2030.  Even in this scenario, much of the growth is back-ended into 2027 through 2030, and yet the chart misses the 2010 Comprehensive Plan targets by about 18%, but considering the severity of the recession that’s not a surprise.

Put another way, that plan called for an average of 1,800 residential building permits to be issues each year.  Under the chart in Figure 1, between the years of 2011 and 2026 the permits average 1,300 units.  Over the full 30 years the average only reached 1,471.

With all that stated (and assumed) it is interesting to note in this projection that the current approved pipeline of nearly 17,000 homes will not be absorbed by the market before 2022 … but this is by no means a glimpse into a crystal ball.  There are many other factors that could impact these projections (for better or for worse, depending upon your perspective): deepening recession in Europe, effects of government spending cuts on this region, and continued labor shortages in the construction industry to name just a few.

Another critical element that many forget is that while market forces of supply and demand play a key role in the absorption of units, once approved, it can still take years before the necessary infrastructure is in place before the first house is sold to the end user.

No matter what lies ahead for our economy, and our community, one thing is for certain—market forces will not be contained.  The laws of supply and demand will ultimately dictate how quickly Frederick County grows.

The authors: Rocky Mackintosh is President of MacRo, Ltd., a Land and Commercial Real Estate firm based in Frederick, Maryland. He also writes for TheTentacle.com.  Kathy Krach is a commercial sales and leasing agent with MacRo.

Promise from Frederick’s Next Mayor: No More Can Kicking

MacRo shares a campaign platform wish list from a commercial real estate perspective.

In “Mayor, Mayor, on the Wall, Who’s the Strongest of Them All?” I gave an overview of the candidates for the 2013 City of Frederick mayoral election.  This is the second part of that post.

In follow up, here are the goals I believe the next mayor of Frederick should pursue:

1.  Bring the City of Frederick’s fiscal house to order.

Post-employment benefit and pension obligations: This line item is a tremendous burden on the budgets of municipalities across the country. While the current administration has made adjustments during the past year—by  increasing participant contributions, changing the calculations for retirement age and salary basis, increasing the age of early retirement, and dropping a several hundred thousand into the city’s OPEB and pension funds—it seems to me that there is a lot more work to do to tame this albatross.  This is one Can that can not be kicked any more.

Tax equity between the city and the county: A reasonable effort was made between these two jurisdictions over the issue of the double taxation of city residents and businesses for services provided by the county for the benefit of the city.  While a tax-differential calculation is a good concept, is a $0.04 reduction in property taxes enough to resolve this issue?

Merge city and county services where appropriate: For several years I wondered if there was a cost efficiency to local government if the city were to annex all of Frederick County in under its umbrella, a strategy adopted by many cities throughout the country—Jacksonville, Florida and Indianapolis, Indiana to name two.  But after further review, I realized that creating bigger bureaucracy does not necessarily make for a more efficient government.  That said, the idea of merging the departments of the city and county water and sewer services, among others, could make sense.

2.  Serious pursuit of economic development.

We all know about the plans to complete the next phase of the Carroll Creek Linear Park, and hats off to the current administration for finding the funding to do so, but that alone is a mere fresh coat of paint to what else could be done.

Adjust expectations on hotel/conference center: The city has placed a great focus and expense on laying out guideline to attract a hotel/conference center for downtown.  And while studies that have been produced show how a 200 plus room hotel and 15,000 square foot conference center  will bring tremendous economic benefit to downtown, from the commercial real estate developer perspective none of the studies prove something of that size to be a worthy investment risk.  Lowering the sites on what is feasible now will make sense.

Complete airport runway expansion: According to my calculations, nearly $20 million has been invested in tower construction and property acquisition around the airport … not including the costs associated with the extension of Monocacy Boulevard.  That’s more than a big investment.  But still nothing has been done to complete acquisition of the easements required to lengthen the runways.  Imagine the economic benefit and revenue boost the city will gain from expanding Maryland’s second busiest airport!  This may be a challenge giving that the FAA is facing cuts from sequestration, but still worth pursuing.

Resolve unrealistic land use plans: Back in 2005 (I like to refer to the years around that time as the “Fantasy Years”), the City adopted a masterful novel called the Land Management Code.  Upon reflection and subsequent application (or lack thereof), it has become clear that many parts of that volume established unrealistic expectations that do not work for the new world order.  Consider the residential density formula for vacant downtown parcels … from a multifamily development perspective an increase could be warranted for certain core areas of downtown, which could provide the additional benefit of bringing more workforce housing to Frederick.

Better use of parking meters and decks, and onsite parking requirements: I could and should devote an entire blog post on this issue.  Meager efforts have been made in addressing how to generate enough revenue from meters to be able to finance the parking structure planned behind the headquarters of Frederick County Public Schools.  Imagine the incredible boost in property tax revenues the City of Frederick could realize from expanding development along the Carroll Creek … and the secret lies in two things: density and parking.

Resolve the sewer and water tap fees issue: Water and sewer tap fees are a significant hurdle to new service-sector businesses trying to locate downtown. Every commercial real estate agent in Frederick knows this is a common roadblock the stops prospective tenants and buyers cold. Even restaurateurs with the clout of Bryan Voltaggio struggle to overcome the expenses involved in opening new locations downtown.

3.  Fearless leadership and decision making:

For far too long the proverbial can has been kicked down the road from City Hall.  Much has been said about what has been accomplished; our next leader must be willing to truly address issues head on as the very fragile recovery continues.

At this point, I will give Mayor Randy the benefit of the doubt as a first term elected official, but I do think that he could have taken a stronger position on several of the issues listed above.  I believe that of this year’s crop of declared and would-be candidates all have the ability to lead.  But as the campaign gets more heated and the blood bath begins, let’s hope the strongest and best leader will emerge!

>>> Read each one of the 2013 Mayoral candidate profiles here on the MacRo Report Blog:   Galen ClagettJennifer DoughertyRandy McClementKaren YoungShelley AloiJeff Holtzinger, and Carol Hirsch.

The author: Rocky Mackintosh, President, MacRo, Ltd., a Land and Commercial Real Estate firm based in Frederick, Maryland. He also writes for TheTentacle.com and for Want2Dish.com.

Against Odds, Manor at Holly Hills Clears a Final Hurdle

Manor at Holly Hills could be the last high-end housing development in Frederick. 

Timing is everything.

Just as the first tender green shoots of a housing recovery are appearing, the custom building lots that comprise the Manor at Holly Hills have at long last been recorded in Frederick County.

The art of residential land development in Maryland always requires a hefty dose of patience, but some deals truly stand in a class by themselves.

While my adventures with Manor at Holly Hills have not been as arduous as those of my colleagues finishing the development planned for Lake Linganore, it’s been a long and frustrating road nevertheless–right up to the point of recording the lots.

I will save those details for a later post.

Suffice it to say, it has been a great deal of effort for a community that will consist of just 21 estate lots.  But this jewel of a community, tucked into the rolling countryside of East Frederick, is special.  It may well represent one of the last of its kind in this area for a generation or more.

As with many counties in Maryland, Frederick County has in recent years been caught in a tug-of-war between alternating administrations: those that follow PlanMaryland to the letter and those that would prefer Frederick to have some control over its own destiny from a land planning standpoint.

Plan Maryland puts an emphasis on the super-density communities with public water and sewer on tiny lots, like those seen throughout Montgomery County.  Some have referred to this as a form of social engineering that will ultimately change lifestyles and patterns of living in this county if followed to the letter.

This is a shame, as so many families move here for exactly the kind of wide-open spaces standard of living that rural Frederick County has offered in the past.

It becomes painfully obvious that there is a high demand for communities like Manor at Holly Hills given that MacRo has already received letter of interest on 65% of the lots with a minimum marketing effort.  This project could very well be sold out before the entrance road is complete.

Given the current battle going on between , it’s highly unlikely Frederick County will see too many more lower-density communities the likes of Manor at Holly Hills.  It’s also becoming harder to find developers who are willing and able to invest up to 7 years to achieve such a small number of lots.

Compounding the complexity and expense of residential development in Frederick are the environmental fees being mandated by the State of Maryland on the 10 counties deemed to be contributing to run-off in the Chesapeake Bay.  Frederick’s share is over the next five years.

Frederick County commissioners have rather than levying the mandatory fees and complying with the state’s interpretation of the vague “tiered” planning requirements mandated by our governor.

How the Smart Growth war will ultimately play out is anyone’s guess.  In the meantime, I’ll watch sadly as a chapter closes on residential development in Frederick County.

But then again, the lots at The Manor at Holly Hills are now recorded (Hooray!), and that creates a wonderful opportunity for a limited number of families to select this beautiful community to build their dream home.

The author: Rocky Mackintosh, President, MacRo, Ltd., a Land and Commercial Real Estate firm based in Frederick, Maryland. He also writes for TheTentacle.com and Want2Dish.com.

5 Top Frederick Commercial Office Sales of 2012

With the looming loss of Bechtel jobs, Frederick’s commercial office market needs new employers more than ever.

“If you didn’t like 2012, you probably aren’t going to like 2013.”

CoStar analyts opened their 2012 office market recap with that somewhat dubious statement, but in the end they delivered a mixed bag of good and bad news.

The U.S. office market is more or less reflecting the U.S. economy:  hot in some spots, a sluggish recovery overall, but moving in the right direction at least.

  • Absorption overall in the U.S. office market has improved, meaning that more space is being leased up than is becoming vacant.   Not surprisingly, office markets with high concentrations of technology and energy businesses are red-hot right now:  Seattle, San Jose, and Pittsburgh (which posted the lowest vacancy rate among the 20 top markets in the U.S. due to it’s coal and shale industries).
  • The Washington D.C./Maryland/Northern Virginia market has already seen the negative effects of government spending cutbacks.  Absorptions in that market dropped.  In fact, northern Virginia had the steepest decline (4 1/2%) in net absorption of any major market nationwide.  Interestingly, despite the increase in vacant office space there rents are continuing to climb in northern Virginia (perhaps because private businesses continue to flee Maryland for Virginia’s business friendly tax structure).
  • REITs are now buying portfolios of office buildings (as opposed to single purchases of large iconic buildings in top markets like New York and Washington, D.C.)  In fact, CoStar declared “the window for top-dollar deals in D.C. has closed.” REITs are shopping instead in secondary and tertiary markets for buildings that offer better yields than top markets will bear.
  • Bechtel is vacating 123,000 SF of office space in Frederick this year.  That is a blow to the Frederick market, and is nudging Frederick’s office vacancy rates up to almost 15%, which otherwise would have remained stable around 13.5%.

The loss of a major employer like Bechtel and higher vacancies in Bethesda and Rockville will likely put some pressure on the Frederick office market this year.  And we don’t yet know what the fallout of government spending cuts will be.

There’s really only one solution to the problem, as MacRo Report Blog has covered repeatedly:

MARYLAND NEEDS MORE PRIVATE EMPLOYERS IN MARYLAND.

During a recent roundtable of Frederick’s commercial real estate professionals, my colleague Gary Large of Ausherman Properties said it best: ”We can’t fill 3 million square feet of unoccupied office space with companies from Frederick.”

2012 TOP 5 COMMERCIAL OFFICE SALES IN FREDERICK, MARYLAND

1) $16,511,000            PNC Bank Building – 110 Thomas Johnson Drive

Greenfield Partners purchased this office building in a portfolio sale of 23 properties worth $161,900,000 from Corporate Office Properties Trust (COPT) in July.  The building is 122,491 SF in size ($134.79/SF).

2)  $3,350,000           North Ridge Professional Center – 130 Thomas Johnson Drive

This 13,204 SF medical office building with multiple tenants sold in June ($253.71/SF).

3)  $950,000              45 East All Saints Street

An investor purchased this 5,585 SF office building that backs up to Carroll Creek in downtown Frederick ($170.10/SF).

4)  $714,010             Conley Farm Building 1 – 7101 Guilford Drive, Unit 100

A Square Investments, LLC. purchased this office condominium in September from Clagett Enterprises.  The property is 3,097 SF ($230.55/SF).

5)  $670,000             New Market Professional Center – 164 West Main Street, Units E & F

Lighthouse Financial Advisors sold this property in July.  The two office condominums total 2,897 SF ($231.27/SF).

There were a couple of office buildings that sold in Frederick that qualified for this list based on recorded selling price, but as they appear not to be non-arms length transactions and not necessarily representative of true market value, they were not included.

The author: Rocky Mackintosh, President, MacRo, Ltd., a Land and Commercial Real Estate firm based in Frederick, Maryland. He also writes for TheTentacle.com and Want2Dish.com.

 

Communicating with the Curmudgeon

It only took a few hours from the time our post on the role of Charter Government in the Comprehensive Planning Process was published to receive a comment from Jack Lynch, Editor of the Frederick Citizen:

Rocky,

I do understand how your world view brings you to think that charter simplifies the [comprehensive]  planning process, but if trust has been broken, it is broken in terms of the public feeling empowered by the planning process to bring good public outcomes for all.

It’s not a locked down, land owner oriented process we need, but a return to planning principles that reflect wider interests, and follow state guidelines.

We also need a broader regional view of planning, and engagement across jurisdictions beyond Frederick County.

The logic of your argument does not fulfill your ends if a Jan Gardner [former president of the Frederick County Board of County Commissioners - BoCC] is elected County Executive under charter. In fact, that could impose upon your interests a draconian brick wall to your vision for development.

Jack

****

Dear Jack,

It is always a pleasure to receive a comment on the MacRo Report Blog from Frederick’s one and only self-professed curmudgeon.

That stated, after reading your comments, I must respectfully disagree with many of your assumptions of how I view the world and the role that charter home rule can impact government actions.

Allow me to touch on each:

Charter Government as a Simplifier  I do not expect that instituting a charter form of government in Frederick County will simplify the planning process. The planning process will be the same planning process as outlined by Article 66B of Maryland’s Annotated Code.  The proposed charter does not change any part of the process that all Boards of County Commissioners have operated under.

I know that you made it clear several weeks ago in the  that you are not a fan of charter government for a number of reasons (nearly all of which I take issue with).

What charter will do is bring to our county government broader community representation, a balance of power and more assurances than the votes of just three elected Commissioner members can give.

Let us not forget that many in our community have often charged the BoCC as a dictatorship (i.e., how many have felt of the reign of Lennie Thompson or currently some are saying about that of  Blaine Young).

By broader representation the county would have one elected executive who will represent the county and run the day to day operations.  His/Her job will be to carry out the policies set by a seven member council.

Within this new structure it will now require at least four votes from the council and one from the county executive, or if the exec vetos the plan, then it will require a super-majority of the council to over-ride that action – a similar concept that all twelve of Frederick County”s chartered municipalities operate under.

With charter home rule these actions require a greater consensus.  This alone will contribute to providing what we agree on: a planning process that will “bring good public outcomes for all.”

Based upon this alone, I think the checks and balances of a charter home rule structure can instill more trust in our local government.

Land Owner Based Planning   In reference to your statement of planning being “a locked down, land owner oriented process,” again the form of government has nothing to do with the process undertaken by the Frederick County Planning Commission.

The only difference as stated above is how selection decisions are made on the front end … and final decisions on the back end … both of which would provide for a much better vetting process, which in the end is solely intended to “bring good public outcomes for all.”

Broader Regional Planning   While I whole-heatedly agree with our statement that our process needs to include a “broader regional view of planning, and engagement across jurisdictions beyond Frederick County,” I think that you are putting the cart way before the horse on this one, Jack.

I have long professed that one of the biggest problems our county government has had is the lack of full engagement with the twelve municipalities with our county boundaries.

This was one of my biggest complaints with the 2010 Comp Plan … I heard first hand from county, city and town planners that there was virtually no collaboration amongst these groups.  I don”t fault any individual BoCC administration for this, because it seems that to varying degrees it has always been done that way … which does not make it right.

So my take is that your statement is a wonderful goal to strive for, but let us get our internal communication and planning coordinated first.

There is only one way that I believe that a charter form of government can benefit this issue:  Leadership.

With a county executive we will have one individual who is solely accountable to the public for seeing that such collaboration takes place.  If the council deems that this is a must and the exec doesn”t perform, then the exec can not legitimately blame anyone else as so often has been the case with the BoCC.

County Executive Who?      My final gripe with your perception of my views is truly my favorite:  That the “logic of [my] argument does not fulfill [my] ends if a Jan Gardner is elected County Executive under charter. In fact that could impose upon [my] interests a draconian brick wall to [my] vision for development.”

OMG! as they say, you are (in my humble opinion) so off base on this one! I am an advocate of Charter government no matter who is elected as county executive or to the county council.  Charter is about FORM & STRUCTURE not INDIVIDUALS.

Frankly, (and you may not be aware of this) I was a strong supporter of Ms. Gardner being named president of the last BoCC (2006~2010). I expressed that to her early on.  Under the former antiquated policy the individual with the most votes garnered in the majority party became the board president.

I felt it was time to change that, especially because, in my opinion, she was much more prepared to fulfill that role.

Even though she and I do not see eye to eye on a number of issues, if Jan Gardner chose to throw her hat in the ring for County Executive, I would not shake in my boots …. as a matter of fact, I’d have no problem if you took a run at it either.  The proposed charter does not make it any harder or easier for anyone of a certain political party or philosophy to get elected.

The beauty of charter is that while it is not impossible that one individual with strong and uncompromising views can reign over the entire county, it is much more improbable that the county would be subjected to the whimsical swings of that pendulum every four years … My take is that our citizenry is tired of the instability it has caused.

This is where form and structure make a real difference.

Vision of Development    As for my “vision of development,” I’m not sure what you think my vision actually is, but that should be the topic of another conversation.

****

At the end of the day, Jack, I am not aware that you, over the last 16 months, have ever attended any of the Charter Writing Board meetings, the outreach events or engaged in a direct face to face conversation with any of our twelve board members regarding your views on charter.

There are a lot of misconceptions about what charter home rule is and is not, so I invite you and any other concerned Frederick County citizen to feel free to contact me or one of the other eleven board members directly so that we can learn from each other in a healthy conversation and/or debate on this vital ballot issue.

Best wishes and I look forward to further communications,

Rocky

 

Rocky Mackintosh, President, MacRo, Ltd., a Land and Commercial Real Estate firm based in Frederick, Maryland. He is an appointed member of the Frederick County Charter Board. He also writes forTheTentacle.com and Want2Dish.com.

There has got to be a better way!

Could Charter Home Rule help to restore trust in Frederick County’s comprehensive land use planning process?

On July 31 the Frederick County Planning Commission (FcPc) and the Board of County Commissioners (BoCC) will hold a joint public hearing on the 2012 comprehensive plan and zoning review.

This will be the first public meeting of the two groups since the FcPc made the unprecedented decision this past November to discontinue their participation in the zoning review process.

With two new members appointed by the BoCC last month to the FcPc, one can only  hope that a more rational discourse will take place in the hearing room.

However, land use planning in Frederick County has become a reflection of politics at large here in the US:  two polarized extreme viewpoints, both sides fervently believing they alone have a flag firmly planted on the moral high ground.

Depending upon who you ask, the 2010 Comprehensive Plan was either a far-sighted plan designed to preserve Frederick County’s farmland and bucolic way of life, or a heavy-handed land grab by local “like minders” of Governor O’Malley’s PlanMaryland that essentially strives to wipe out the concept of compensation for development rights.

Despite popular opinion to the contrary, most real estate developers, farmers, real estate professionals, and even local land speculators generally agree with the concept to preserve our agricultural heritage and excellent lifestyle.  They merely seek a set of governmental rules and regulations that they can rely upon from one year to the next … and one administration to the next.

The previous BoCC (lead by its president Jan Gardner — 2006 to 2010) and their handpicked FcPc members took advantage of Maryland’s less than favorable respect for property rights laws when they chose to simply strip away the long held zoning of many landowners in the name of smart growth in what was clearly an incomprehensible plan.

It was unreasonable, at best, to think that there would not be serious backlash from the massive number of downzonings that resulted from the plan.

Consider the case of Frederick’s most infamous step-child Lake Linganore, which was the subject of a significant depletion of density in Gardner’s 2010 comprehensive plan.  The end result was that the project was once again thrown into financial ruin after millions of dollars and proffers were invested in planning, infrastructure and property taxes based upon a previously approved larger project of 14,000 homes.

How can the comprehensive land use planning process be structured so that it is consistent and reliable from one administration to the next?

I can remember a time when the county’s comprehensive plan was just that — a living breathing document that while occasionally tweaked, its overall message was consistent for decades.  Of course some of those “tweaks” upset different groups along the way, but the plan was the plan … and it was respected, because businesses, residents and investors could rely on its consistency.

A comprehensive plan is NOT a mandate for growth.  It is a blueprint, a guideline, for accommodating future population growth and commercial development where it is projected to occur or channeled by planning over what is a typically twenty-year time span.

When a comprehensive plan is used as a political statement from one administration to next, the community at large quickly looses trust in the document.  Lack of trust breaks down the core of what government is all about, and before one sees it coming a comprehensive plan can become the stimulus of deep divide and political polarization.

Like a disease, polarization can infect the heart of a community.  Once the infection spreads it becomes very hard to rebuild the trust and respect in all that a government is responsible for providing its citizens.

It’s been nearly fifteen years that this political disease has been mutating out of control in the Frederick community.  That’s about the time that the phrase “if the developers win, you lose” was introduced by then BoCC candidate John “Lennie” Thompson, who reflected the sentiment of many who were beginning to lose faith in their local leaders.

While that campaign slogan worked well politically for Mr. Thompson, it was probably one of the most significant ingredients that cast out the spirit of compromise to planning in exchange for severe polarization over land use issues.

Once Thompson was elected into office, counter groups (such as Defenders of Citizens Rights) were formed by local property rights advocates to challenge the radical land use changes he preached … this divide threatened the reliability of the county’s comprehensive planning process.

I must admit I got caught up in the paranoia and took sides with the property rights advocates, when it was clear that the sacred land planning process was quickly on its way to becoming a partisan political hot potato.  Subsequent commissioner campaigners used this blazing spud as a tool to garner votes.

When the dust settled from each campaign, the new board of five members set out to form pacts of at least three members to push their collective political agenda through partisan appointments to the FcPc.

It wasn’t long before any consistency and reliability eroded away with each four year swing of the pendulum.

Our community has become fractured from the speed and weight of what became a swinging steel wrecking ball … from a change every four years in the political philosophies of a majority of just three commissioners.

Think about that … three people.

The fact that dramatic shifts have occurred this often for so many years (three times in the last six years), tells me that trust in county government has deteriorated to an all-time low.

While I am a open advocate of many of the efforts of the current BoCC administration, especially when it comes to restoring the zoning and property rights to those who were slighted by the 2010 comprehensive plan, it is blatantly clear that our community needs to find a way to bridge the deeply polarized divide between the so-called forces of growth versus no-growth.

While the comprehensive planning process is cast in the stone tablets of Article 66B of the Annotated Code of Maryland, what can be done at the top to restore trust in our local county government?

Over the last sixteen months I served as one of twelve appointed members to the Frederick County Charter Writing Board. The experience once again showed me the value of compromise for the good of the whole.  This group of individuals all held differing opinions on how to structure a new constitution for Frederick County.

I have written extensively on the MacRo Report Blog expressing my opinion on the benefits of changing our form of government to one with a balance of power and the better representation that charter home rule would bring to Frederick County.

Such a move will place an elected county executive as the one individual who is accountable for carrying out policies set by a seven-member county council.  A change to charter home rule will offer Frederick County citizens broader representation than currently afforded the community at large.

The simple majority of three like minded BoCC members will be replaced with a structure that provides a balance of power in setting policy and carrying it out.

There is no question that the force of the land planning pendulum will be slowed to a more healthy speed, which will aid in regaining trust on our local government once again.

Think about it.

Rocky Mackintosh, President, MacRo, Ltd., a Land and Commercial Real Estate firm based in Frederick, Maryland. He is an appointed member of the Frederick County Charter Board. He also writes forTheTentacle.com and Want2Dish.com.

A Planning Commission Mission: Maybe it’s the Mercury

Is the battle over how to control real property rights in Frederick County the core issue?

The Evil of the Victors … Anger lingers, I guess, when you and your fellow cohorts are still reeling from the major defeat you suffered in the 2010 Frederick County elections.

Since the last post of the Land Planning Game Show: Playing Politics with Land Use Planning on the Tentacle.com and the MacRo Report Blog, the defenders of the Frederick County Planning Commission’s mid-November motion to “Discontinue the proceedings of the 2011 County Comprehensive Plan and Zoning Review, as requested by the Board of County Commissioners, and to forward a recommendation to the Board …to continue the current plan and zoning in effect without change” have had a lot of angry words to say.

I must admit that after reading through the various comments that have popped up on various web forums on the Frederick News Post and Facebook, to name a few, it may very well be that the title theme should have been centered around quotes from the Mad Hatter from Lewis Carroll’s classic books from the mid late 1800’s Alice in Wonderland.

The Jabberwock, with eyes aflame,

Jaws that bait and claws that catch,

Beware the Jabberwock, my son …

It’s all about you, you know

(the Mad Hatter in the Tim Burton film Alice in Wonderland 2010)

Back in those days, people who spent too much time in the profession of making hats became a bit deranged from the poison in mercury that was part of the felt-making process. It was apparently so common that “Mad as a Hatter” became a colloquial conversation phrase in referring to one deemed crazy.

Speaking of mercury, in Greek mythology, Mercury was also known as the messenger of the Gods. Over the centuries, the phrase “shooting the messenger” emerged as a reference to what one did to the couriers who delivered bad news.

County Planning Commission member Bob White stakes his claim as a planning procedural expert in complete comprehensive plan reviews having been involved in the last two – 2010 and also back in the 1990’s.

But like the chemical mercury, spending too much time making the “felt” for those plans may have generated such pride of authorship, which he and others so blindly believed in the perfection of their work, that they have been trying to defend the indefensible.

In an email to me after the last post, Mr. White refers to the MacRo posts as “deliberately slanted and blatantly erroneous” and he charges county attorney Michael Chomel with a “deliberate misrepresentation” of Article 66B of Annotated Code of Maryland.

Now I know that my views can be looked upon by certain people as being somewhat biased, but for Mr. White to make such a charge of a county attorney who has served multiple boards of commissioners, is truly taking a direct shot at the messenger.

Seeking a means of making a point by splitting hairs is a well-worn tactic, as Mr. White makes the claim that “the BOCC [Board of County Commissioners] does not have the power or authority to initiate the process” of a comprehensive plan review. He cites section 3.05 of 66B as stating that the Planning Commission solely “makes and approves a plan” that it may recommend to the board. Okay, but isn’t there a difference between “initiating” (ordering or requesting) and “making” a plan?

Now I’m not a lawyer, but I have read Article 66B, as well as the pertinent section of the Frederick County Code, and even after seeking legal advice for this post, it seems that there is no statement in the Frederick County Code or in 66B that restricts the Board of County Commissioners from making a request of the Planning Commission to take up a plan or zoning review.

Besides, there is plenty of historical precedence where previous boards of commissioners have asked the Planning Commission to review all or certain sections of a current comprehensive plan. Take for instance former County Commissioner John L. “Lennie” Thompson’s 2006 infamous out of sequence Geronimo Plan that sought to down zone the “low hanging fruit” in the New Market region within a year of a prior board’s adoption of the Comprehensive Plan.

A lot of noise was made of the fact that our post made no reference to the much heralded contents in the November 16th letter from the Maryland Department of Planning addressed to Frederick County Community Development Director Eric Soter. Seems it was mysteriously received by commission member Catherine Forrence before her chairman Mr. McClurkin and many others got a copy.

Defenders of the Planning Commission in their web rants have stressed the importance of this letter in that any new zoning changes will not be consistent with the 2010 County Comprehensive Plan.

When I read the letter, among many things I found it interesting that the author, Peter Conrad, who is the Director of Local Government Affairs, apparently did not support Mr. White’s claim that the Board of County Commissioners had no authority to ask the Planning Commission to take action on a 2011 Comprehensive Plan and Zoning Review.

It seems that Mr. Conrad must have accepted the idea that such a review can take place, because he actually recommends approval of one of the several countywide rezoning requests (CPZ11-MD-17 in Middletown from Agriculture to Residential). While the general tone of the letter attempts to throw cold water on the effort, he is surely not claiming that the action by the Board of County Commissioners in requesting the Planning Commission undertake a plan and zoning review is illegal or inappropriate.

With the Maryland Department of Planning being the hopeful center of controlling all zoning in the state through Gov. Martin O’Malley’s ill-conceived PlanMaryland, it would seem that this letter could have carried very strong support for the allegations of Mr. White and Ms. Forrence.

Mr. O’Malley is quoted as stating that local county elected and appointed officials often make “stupid decisions,” so he thinks his deeply-rooted team of bureaucrats centralized in Baltimore are more capable at planning.

Now that’s just “Mad!”

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