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Comp plan update needs deeper look

May 03, 2002|BY BOB MAGINNIS

On Tuesday three Washington County Commissioners got to heart of the matter quickly as they discussed the proposed update of the county's Comprehensive Plan.

The immediate question for them, and for everyone who owns more than an acre of property, is: How many homes can I build if I subdivide it? But the issue is more complicated than that and the community's future demands more in-depth analysis.

The three commissioners - William Wivell. Pal Swartz and Gregory Snook - told The Herald-Mail they weren't sure citizens understand that, if enacted, the update would reduce the number of homes that could be built in preservation, conservation and agricultural districts. In the last category, the limit would go from one home per acre to one per every 10 acres.

There's some argument that such restrictions will only gobble up farmland faster. That may be true, but given the poor return most farmers get for the time they put in, zoning may have little effect on whether farmland is preserved.

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What discussions of "how many per acre" ignore is that higher density residential development increases every taxpayer's costs - for schools, roads and law enforcement. That's because residences don't pay enough in taxes to cover the services that most families require.

That fact should make elected officials wary, but Washington County has grown so slowly in recent years that officials may be reluctance to put on the brakes.

But since they do need more information before they make such a decision, why not use a computer model and figure out the costs both ways? Before anyone says that would be impossible, consider the fact that since the late 1980s, millions of American children have been building virtual communities in a game called "SimCity."

In this game, as in real life, actions have consequences. More development leads to more pollution and so on. But what the commissioners are doing is not a game and they need more than a hunch on how today's real-life decisions will affect the county 20 years from now.

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