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'Teeth' will be hard to get

January 08, 1997

When Washington County Commissioner Jim Wade told Keedysville residents who want their area to remain rural to push for some "teeth" in the zoning laws, he made it sound as easy as going to the dentist for a set of false choppers. It won't be.

The first step will be a rewrite of the county's comprehensive plan. With all the public hearings, that could take a year or more. Only then can the commissioners begin a comprehensive rezoning of the county. Even at that point, tightening up the rules governing agricultural zoning will be tough.

Why is that? Because, as Del. Anita Stup said during a recent legislative preview meeting, when a farmer wants to leave the land - either because his children don't want to farm or because it's too difficult to turn a profit - developers offer the best land prices. Farm preservation is in the state's interest, she said, because if development supplants farms, taxpayers will be faced with additional costs - for schools, roads and other services.

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There are two practical ways to accomplish preservation. One is by making it too expensive to develop farm land outside certain growth areas. The county already has a form of this strategy in place, and Gov. Parris Glendening has promised more of the same with his-so-called "smart growth" plan.

But not all the farms worthy of preservation are outside those growth areas. In other locations, the county, the state or whoever will have to negotiate to purchase easements or development rights from farm owners.

There is likely to be some resentment about spending tax dollars to reward people who already own property, but land owners who are denied the full use of their property have a right to be compensated for it. The alternative would be a dictatorship.

More than 20 years ago, another group of commissioners secured the farm community's support for the first zoning ordinance by making it possible to do just about anything on land zoned "agriculture." Add "teeth" by improving that zoning law is a good idea, but be warned: The process will be more like a root canal than a routine check-up.

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