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Rezoning sought in 'Gods country'

July 07, 2002|by ANDREA ROWLAND

By ANDREA ROWLAND

andrear@herald-mail.com

The southern tip of Washington County where farms, woods and meadows give way to sweeping vistas of the Potomac River and surrounding mountains is known as Pleasant Valley. The area's beauty inspires some who live scattered among its rolling hills to call it "God's country."

And they don't want the high-density housing they've seen take over pristine parts of neighboring counties to overrun their piece of paradise.

"Do we really need to be following in the footsteps of Montgomery and Frederick counties?" Crystal Rice of near Weverton asked.

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She and others who live in the scenic area above Sandy Hook fear that's what might happen if the Washington County Commissioners grant a neighbor's request to rezone about 23 acres near the Appalachian Trail, C&O Canal and Harpers Ferry national historical parks and various Civil War battlefields.

The Martin family, which owns the Hillside Motel, requested a zoning change from business general to residential suburban for the land adjacent to their motel on Keep Tryst Road at U.S. 340 just northeast of Sandy Hook. A developer wants to build 34 homes on the property, which includes heavily wooded areas and meadows spanning two high knolls overlooking the Potomac, Robert Martin said.

The residential zoning designation would allow for construction of up to four single-family homes per acre and/or 3.5 duplexes per acre, according to the county's zoning ordinance.

Rezoning opponents such as Hillside Motel neighbor Jim Downing say even 34 homes is too many for the land visible from multiple overlooks in Maryland and West Virginia and from the Potomac River bridge that connects the two states.

"This would be out of character for the neighborhood," Downing said. "We have a very unique area here with a very rich history. It's the gateway to Maryland."

The scope of development allowed under residential suburban zoning would change the area's character, compound traffic problems on U.S. 340, tax such scenic byways as Sandy Hook Road, overburden the sewer system, cause potential school overcrowding and hurt tourism, opponents say.

Rezoning opposed

Dozens of area residents and officials from the National Park Service and several local land conservation groups have protested the proposed rezoning for those reasons.

They also say that to allow the rezoning is to set a precedent that will threaten rural areas bordering historic sites throughout Washington County.

Such a rezoning would effectively change the character of the land - one condition upon which rezoning requests can be rejected, said Paul Rosa, executive director of the Harpers Ferry Conservancy. The conservancy is a nonprofit land trust that works to preserve the quality of the area within a 25-mile radius of the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers.

"This could just snowball up Pleasant Valley and the whole land-use scheme collapses. The county has an obligation here," Rosa said.

He joins Keep Tryst Road landowner Marguerite Snyder in advocating total preservation of the Martin property. Snyder's 45 acres overlooking the Potomac will remain undeveloped due to an easement she and her late husband sold to the National Park Service, she said.

"We wanted to preserve the scenic beauty of the area," Snyder said.

"Places like this area are rare and disappearing so we have to preserve what we can," area resident Walter Ehrhardt said.

Compromise

Ehrhardt and several of his neighbors said they might accept conservation rezoning as a possible Martin property compromise.

The area surrounding the Martins' land is zoned conservation, which restricts residential development to one house per three acres.

Patrick Bowers' family farm in southern Washington County was sold for conservative development, he said, so he understands the need for housing. Yet he doesn't want to see the "suburban impact" that a residential suburban rezoning decision will have on the peaceful character of his neighborhood, Bowers said.

"We relied on the one house per three acres in making our choice to live in this neighborhood," Bowers wrote in a letter of opposition to the proposed rezoning. "Don't destroy our family's dream."

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