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Moratorium won't save county farms

June 23, 2002|by BOB MAGINNIS

Washington County Commissioner Paul Swartz, hearing the cries of citizens who believe that residential development is moving ahead too quickly, this week called for a moratorium, at least until the new Comprehensive Plan and accompanying zoning regulations are approved.

What Swartz fears is that property owners who see new, more restrictive rules coming down the road will try to get their projects okayed before those new rules take effect. His fellow commissioners feel he's overstating the problem, but Swartz correctly perceives that many citizens fear that the sprawl, gridlock and school crowding that overtook Frederick County will be re-created here.

But there are two problems with a moratorium. The first is that it would put a real financial hardship on local tradespeople who've made commitments based on the rules as they stand now. Should they pay for the past county boards' lack of foresight on land-use planning, just as citizens are paying now for previous commissioners' errors on sewers?

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If there is a moratorium, it ought to be on developments of several hundred units, which have the potential for overcrowding schools, roads and other services.

Nor should local government be in a such a hurry to approve projects seeking Planned Unit Development status, which gives developers a break on some items in exchange for their agreement to bend on other matters.

Some recent PUD projects, like the Rachuba Group's development behind the center at Hagerstown, were pushed through even though some councilmembers had serious objections to parts of the plan. A little extra time spent reviewing and negotiating shouldn't cost this area any projects, and if they do, does this area really need developers who aren't willing to bend?

Beyond those issues, Swartz, his colleagues and all the candidates for the county board need to consider two other issues - getting development to cover most of the costs of the services it requires and finding a way to preserve farmland without putting farmers out of business.

On the first issue, most homes - unless they're million-dollar mansions - don't generate enough taxes to pay for services most families require. For example, at the end of fiscal 2000, Washington County schools spent $3,400 annually per pupil. If you have three students in school, that's $10,200 a year, but chances are you don't pay anything like that in local taxes.

Commercial and industrial development has to take up the slack, and how that situation might improve over the next four years is a topic for another column. For today let's agree that if residential growth outpaces commercial and industrial, there won't be enough cash to pay the bills, unless of course elected officials go back to existing taxpayers for some "help."

Now consider the plight of the farm community. I spoke to a local dairy farmer recently who said that the cost of producing milk is now more than he can sell it for. The only asset he has is his land, which is a combination nest egg and escape hatch, should he decide he can't hold on any longer.

In his place, would you stay on the land? Would you work long days for a small return, depending on the weather to cooperate with your planting schedule? And then there would be the worries about animal diseases and the possibility that elected officials who don't know one end of a cow from another might dream up some new and expensive rule that would put you out of business.

Oh, and here's something I didn't mention: Health care. Farmers I've spoken to say it's essential that one or both spouses in the farm family work off the land, so that the family can get affordable health insurance.

My solution would be to purchase farmers' development rights, or even buy the farms outright from those who don't want to stay on the land. The county or some independent authority could add deed restrictions, then re-sell the property to someone who believes they can make a living just from what they grow and produce.

If the county mandates 10-acre lots in agricultural areas, as is being proposed, then those who are ready to sell their farms will get less and farmland will be turned into lots of large lawns.

Some parts of this issue will have to be handled at the federal level. Dairy price supports, which city politicians oppose because it makes them look like heroes if they save their constituents a few pennies on a gallon of milk, are essential if dairy farms are to be preserved.

If such politicians were truthful, they'd point out that the costs of development passed on to every taxpayer far outweigh the cost of giving the farmers a few extra bucks.

Instead of declaring a moratorium, which would be in effect only for a short time, Swartz and other officials need to work on preserving farming as a way of life.

A good first step would be getting the county's General Assembly delegation to approve a real estate transfer tax to pay for easements. They've rejected it once, but given that they've offered no alternative, they should be able to okay it once they're safely past the November elections.

Bob Maginnis is editorial page editor of The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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