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Developers don’t deserve our condemnation

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Years ago, a colleague balked at the notion of endorsing Fred Smith for county commissioner. “But Scott, he’s a developer,” she said, the word leaving an obviously bad taste in her mouth.

I asked her what exactly it was she thought developers did. Before she could respond, I answered for her. “Developers build homes for families,” I said. I could have added too that developers build apartments, townhomes, condos and the like for young folks just starting out and for retirees who want to move closer to their grandchildren but don’t want a yard to mow. I think those facts get lost in today’s fast-growing Johnston County, where complaints about crowded schools, congested roads and loss of farmland are putting developers in the crosshairs.

The stereotype of developers is that they’re greedy carpetbaggers who cheat farmers out of their lands, clear-cut those lands and then throw up cheap houses before skipping town with cash bulging from their suitcases. I sometimes wonder if county commissioners see developers that way. Commissioner Larry Wood, for example, likes to ask developers about their community involvement in Johnston. It’s an unfair question, because community involvement is not a requirement for doing business in the county. But when a developer trips over the question, it must confirm Mr. Wood’s suspicion that developers are in Johnston only for the money.

And while we’re on the subject of community involvement, I don’t know that commissioners ask that question of industrial projects before showering them with millions in tax rebates that residential developers neither ask for nor receive. The jobs those companies promise are involvement enough, as well they should be. But just like Novo Nordisk, Ashley HomeStore and other beneficiaries of the county’s largess, residential developers create jobs too — for carpenters, bricklayers, roofers and so on. And developers spend money for — and pay sales taxes on — lumber, bricks, shingles, flooring, concrete, fixtures, appliances and the list goes on. Those jobs and that spending feed an untold number of Johnston families, and the sales taxes pay for a variety of government services.

To be sure, some developers are bad actors, but so are some auto-repair shops, some used-car salesmen, some handymen. Pick a profession and you will find the occasional bad apple. But no developer has ever forced a farmer to sell his land. Banks might do that; developers don’t. In Johnston County, we revere farmers, and rightly so. But the truth of the matter is that farmers, or the heirs of farmers, willingly sell their lands to developers. If Johnstonians fretting about growth want to gripe about someone, they can gripe about farmers, though they won’t get an amen from me. I think farmers have every right to do with their lands as they see fit.

Keep in mind too that no developer has ever created demand for a house. People moving to Johnston County do that. And yes, some of those houses are starter homes on small lots, but not because developers prefer them. It’s simply that for some families starting out, a 1,000-square-foot house on a quarter-acre lot is what they can afford. And if we shouldn’t fault people for buying the home they can afford, we shouldn’t fault developers for meeting that demand.

I don’t write this to weigh in on the growth debate in Johnston County, other than to say I fear proposed rule changes, if adopted, would drive up the cost of housing here. And this column is not an endorsement of Mr. Smith’s candidacy. I think voters should decide that. My point is simply that when we disparage developers, we disparage the people who build our homes. By that way of thinking, we should complain too about the doctors who make us healthy.


Scott Bolejack is editor of the Johnstonian News. Reach him at