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Johnston County Commissioners are largely dismissive of fears that their slower-growth policies will fuel sprawl and inflate housing prices here. For them, the rapid pace of Johnston’s population growth is a bigger worry than the supply of affordable housing.
Which is to say, we don’t expect commissioners to pay much heed to our critique of proposed increases in Johnston’s system development fees, which developers pay to hook onto the county’s water and sewer systems. But in defense of keeping Johnston an affordable place to live, we’ll take another tilt at this windmill.
If commissioners adopt the proposed fee increases, they will add $3,140 to the cost of every new Johnston home that taps onto the county’s water and sewer systems. Because families tend to buy homes they can afford, a couple of things are likely to happen. One, families will buy smaller homes because that will be what they can afford. Two, developers will build smaller houses because that’s what buyers will demand.
Granted, $3,140 doesn’t sound like a lot of money when a new house in Johnston can easily cost $250,000. But keep in mind that higher system development fees are just one slower-growth tool likely to drive up new-home prices in Johnston. The county is also forcing developers to build on larger lots, which cost more for developers to purchase and, later, for families to buy.
In case reading county agenda packages isn’t your thing, the proposed fees, should they come to pass, will be higher than all but two places included in a list the county compiled for comparison purposes. At nearly $7,000, Johnston’s combined water and sewer fee would be higher than the fees in Raleigh, Cary, Apex, Greenville, Winston-Salem, Buncombe County, Orange County, Durham, Greensboro and a host of other counties and towns.
In defense of making Johnston’s fees among the highest in the state, the county points to the pace of growth here, which is to say that a growing county needs to spend more to supply growth with water and sewer. But last we looked, Raleigh, Cary and Apex were fast-growing too, and yet their fees would pale in comparison to Johnston’s. And last we looked, water meters and PVC pipe cost Raleigh, Cary and Apex just as much as they cost Johnston.
Perhaps the difference in fees between Johnston and its neighbors is that Johnston has more catching up to do when it comes to water and sewer infrastructure. That’s fair, but it also tells us this: If Johnston is playing catch-up, that means thousands of people who came here in recent years didn’t pay their fair share of the costs of growth. And it also means that people moving here in the years to come will pay more than their fair share. That could have been the case too when Johnston began replacing its old three-story schools with modern ones. But in that case, county leaders asked Johnstonians to borrow the money, which means longtime residents and new arrivals are both paying for new schools.
Our greatest fear is that one day many people who work in Johnston will not be able to afford to live here. We’re thinking especially about the people who work in retail stores, restaurants, the county’s many hotels and other service-sector jobs. If county leaders think traffic into and out of Johnston is bad now, just wait until thousands of people have to commute here every day because they can’t afford to call Johnston home.
Growth has caught many a county off guard, and no one can blame Johnston leaders for trying to slow growth while the county plays catch-up. But policy decisions have consequences, and Johnston’s slow-growth policies, while perhaps helpful in the short term, could put the cost of housing out of reach of many people who work here and would like to call the county home.
As they move to slow growth, County Commissioners say they are responding to complaints from citizens who have grown tired of congested roads, crowded schools and the tax burden that comes with accomodating growth. But commissioners concede that some of those growth complaints come from people who are themselves newcomers to Johnston.
That doesn’t surprise us, but we have to wonder if those complaints alone are enough to justify policy moves that could make homeownership unattainable for people who work in jobs the county can’t do without.