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Letters to ther editor

May 12, 2002

Washington County's Planning Commission recently approved tough new density restrictions as part of its Comprehensive Plan for growth over the next 20 years. The plan, which next faces a vote by the County Commission, will increase current restrictions by a factor of 10 for nearly a quarter-million acres. In other words, land now zoned for one house per acre will jump to one per 10 acres, land zoned one house per two acres will go to one per 20, and land zoned for one house per three acres will go to one per 30.

Restriction supporters claim the change is needed to "safeguard the rural values and quality of life in Washington County" and counteract "visual blight, loss of farmland and the farming way of life."

In fact, the restrictions will force more farmers out of agriculture and turn more fields into sprawling, unattractive housing developments. Here's why:

A farmer's land is his chief economic resource. If he wishes to modernize his equipment or he suffers through a lean year, he can borrow against the property's value or sell some ground to obtain needed cash. In especially difficult times, if he accrues a lot of debt, he can sell the farm, pay off his bills, and hopefully have enough money left over to pursue another career.

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Hence, a farmer's land can be thought of as a "rainy day account" that he can use in hard times. Because of that account, he is more willing to engage in the financially (and personally) risky business of farming.

But those accounts' value will be severely taxed by the new restrictions. Most obviously, the restrictions will cut - by a factor of 10 - the number of building lots a farmer can sell.

Second, they will cut the land's per-acre price to reflect the severe limitation on how the land can be used and how easily it can be resold. The price will decrease further because the purchaser knows that he's assuming considerable risk; he knows that county officials are willing to step in and further harm the property's value.

The severe cuts to the "rainy day funds" will prompt many farmers to sell their land to developers - even at greatly reduced prices from the restrictions - instead of taking additional risk by staying in farming. Farmers, let us recognize, are shrewd economists who will fully appreciate the disincentive to farm that the new density requirements will create.

Contrary to proponents' claims, several economic studies have shown conclusively that zoning harms overall land values. However, there are some "winners." They're the people who are not affected by new density requirements. Zoning, then, is a wealth transfer, with wealth confiscated from farmers and given - typically - to powerful landowners.

In economic terms, the confiscated and redispersed wealth is "rent" - an uncompensated benefit that goes to some special interest because of government action. It should not surprise us that state officials are pushing the new requirements; Annapolis is a playground for rent-seekers and politicians who love to use government power to reshape Maryland in the form that they personally prefer.

A fairer approach to farmland preservation would be for Washington County to seek to purchase farmers' land or protective easements, instead of confiscating much of the land's value through government fiat.

Granted, such a policy would be expensive - the cost would equal the wealth farmers would lose under the new density requirements - but it truly would preserve open space and help farmers.

In the upcoming Comprehensive Plan debate, someone should explain to the density-requirement supporters the true effects of what they propose. And they should answer the question, "Why won't you pay farmers for what you want, instead of taking what you want from them?"

Thomas Firey, a Washington County native and son of a dairy farmer, is managing editor of Regulation magazine and a policy staffer for the Cato Institute.

Don't steal our history


To the editor:

Several months ago I wrote a letter concerning school mascots and how some people were offended by the use of Native American names.

On the front page of The Morning Herald there was an article about Richard Regan from Kensington, Md. and how he found Boonsboro High School's use of "Warriors" offensive. He also found fault with Conococheague Elementary using "Indians" as its mascot. I stated in my previous letter that these nicknames were not being used in a negative way but a positive one.

I further stated, as do the fine people of Boonsboro, that these names are used to symbolize the pride, courage, dignity and strength of the Native American.

Regan calls Washington County the poster child of racism. He states that Washington County can't understand diversity because we are rural, nonprogrssive and heaven forbid, conservative. Most of us understand all too well his type of "diversity."

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