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County shouldn’t fuel sprawl, higher home prices

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County commissioners have been talking about it for a year now, and were scheduled to talk about it again earlier this week. Meanwhile, candidates for county commissioner have mentioned it too in emails and conversations with this newspaper.

The subject is growth management, and many Johnstonians support it, even if they don’t yet know what it will look like should commissioners act.

Growth management enjoys support for a host of reasons. Some Johnstonians are tired of creeping along on roads that once easily handled the daily traffic flow. Others are weary — and wary — of sending their children to crowded schools. Still others see the money the county is spending on a growing school system and fear tax increases are on the horizon. And some Johnstonians fear the loss of farmland to subdivisions and shopping centers.

For their part, county commissioners have already reduced the number of allowable mobile homes per acre from four to 1.5, and they have cut the number of apartments from 15 to eight. And while they haven’t yet acted, commissioners are giving serious thought to curbing the number of single-family homes per development.

But our fear is that these policy tools will do nothing to slow housing growth while quickening the pace of sprawl and raising housing costs in Johnston. Because even if commissioners tell developers they can, say, build only 100 houses on 100 acres instead of 150, people will still want to come to Johnston County for their jobs in the Triangle. As a result, developers will have to buy up even more land to meet demand for housing here. And that land, obviously, will be farther away from those jobs in the Triangle, meaning even longer commutes to and from work.

And lest commissioners forget, if the county says a subdivision can have only 100 homes instead of 150, the cost of those 100 houses will go up because some of a developer’s costs are fixed. Which is to say that the cost of a street, or the cost of a water line, is the same whether that street or line passes by 100 homes or 150.

One candidate for county commissioner wants developers to shelter more of the cost of growth by having them pay for the road improvements their projects require. To a degree, the county already does this, requiring developers to pay for turn lanes into their subdivisions. But perhaps the candidate wants to extend that requirement to include, for example, widening a road from two lanes to four.

Whatever the case, the result would be the same — higher home prices, because developers would simply pass the cost of turn lanes and wider roads onto the families that buy their houses.

We’ll confess to not knowing how to manage Johnston’s growth, though we think planned developments like Flowers Plantation near Clayton are helpful because they have houses near grocery stores and other business, meaning folks don’t have to go onto already crowded roads to buy milk and bread.

But we’re pretty sure the answer isn’t pushing development farther away from where people work. And we don’t want Johnston to become known as the county that priced people out of home ownership through policy decisions that were supposed to make the county a desirable place to live. Can the American Dream really be desirable if it’s unattainable?

County commissioners feel some pressure to manage growth, and they are likely to feel even more pressure in an election year. But surely, no action on growth is better than policies that are likely to do more harm than good.