The late Louis L. Goldstein, longtime comptroller of Maryland, was often heard to advise people to invest in land, as he put it, "because the Good Lord isn't making any more of it."
The observation is one that is relevant to the state of the home-building industry in Harford County, which has so far been lagged behind the rest of the nation that is experiencing a slow, but steady, recovery.
In Harford County, permits for new home construction are down in the first six months of this year compared to the same period last year. In the years since the economy tanked in 2008, permit numbers had been flat, and a shadow of what they were in the 1980s and even 1990s. In recent years, the county has been issuing in the neighborhood of 300 permits a year, sometimes substantially fewer. Prior to the crash, annual permit numbers were reported in the 500 to 700 range, which was regarded as a shadow of the 1980s annual totals that ran between 1,500 and 2,000 new home permits per year.
Between the mid-1960s and the 1990s land development and home building became key businesses in Harford County. In terms of economic importance, residential development is arguably second only to Aberdeen Proving Ground, having long ago supplanted agriculture and manufacturing locally. Politically, residential developers have managed to retain a high level of influence in county government, even if their business has slumped over the past six years.
So long as Aberdeen Proving Ground remains in place, there's a strong likelihood the home-building industry in Harford County will finally begin to experience the same kind of rebound that has been going on elsewhere in the country. People who move to the area to work on post will want places to live. Moreover, Harford County remains a solid choice as a bedroom community for people who work in Baltimore and Wilmington, and, to a lesser degree, Washington and Philadelphia.
For the home building industry, however, the glory days are over. Way back in the 1980s, land prices were low, relative to the rest of metro Maryland. These days, home prices in Harford are comparable to those in nearby Baltimore County, as Cecil County is considered the new horizon with regard to low land prices.
Then there's the matter of Mr. Goldstein's observation. In the early 1980s, it was possible to drive from Edgewood to Bel Air along old Route 24 (now Route 924; the modern 24 had yet to be built) with the only commercial venture in between being the 7-Eleven store near Plumtree Road. There was no Festival at Bel Air, no Walmart, no Plumtree McDonald's and there were no traffic lights to speak of.
That land, commuter-convenient to an I-95 exit, has long since been developed into thousands of single family homes, townhouses and apartments. In other words, much of the low-cost, commuter-friendly land that had been available to fuel the construction of thousands of new homes a year has been used.
Sure, there are studies out there showing 20,000 or more lots remaining in the county's designated development area, which is enough for many years of 1990s-pace development. If those lots were the ones easy to develop, however, they'd already have houses on them.
Moreover, there are other factors at play. Maryland's population has been relatively stable in recent years. Similarly, Harford County has been growing at a much more modest rate than had been the case in the second half of the 1900s. Baltimore City, which gave up population to the counties from the 1960s when it was at or near 1 million people until recently when it had fallen to a population of 600,000, has put on a full court press in recent years to increase its population. It remains to be seen how effective the effort will be, but urban flight – to use the polite term – seems to have been stemmed in the past decade or so.
When competing for new home buyers, Harford County has competition in Baltimore County and City, as well as Cecil County, that barely existed 25 years ago.
Even if the county were to open resource conservation and agriculturally zoned land to development, the territories in question are not within easy commuting distance.
So long as people are living in Harford County, home building will always be part of the economic picture. Old houses need to be replaced. New lots can be platted in places that once seemed unlikely. And people will always need places to live. Shelter, along with food and clothing, is a necessity of civilized life.
The boomtown days when the Route 24 corridor sprouted thousands of houses a year are very much in the rearview mirror. As the county's planning and zoning director put it when asked about the state of permit issuing in the county, it's "the new normal."