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Hearing speakers focus on land use

About 200 people attended a public hearing about proposed revisions to the county's comprehensive plan Wednesday night.

About 200 people attended a public hearing about proposed revisions to the county's comprehensive plan Wednesday night.

July 18, 2002|by ANDREA ROWLAND

andrear@herald-mail.com

Washington County residents spoke in favor of preserving agriculture, conserving natural resources and controlling development during a Wednesday night public hearing about proposed revisions to the county's comprehensive plan.

"We have attributes which I think this plan protects. The key is managed growth and managed protection and balance," said Dennis Frye of Sharpsburg. "I urge you to adopt this plan."

The plan, which provides a framework for managing the county's growth and natural resources over the next 20 years, got mixed reviews from those who spoke at the hearing.

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About 200 people attended the hearing before the Washington County Board of Commissioners at Hagerstown Community College's Kepler Theater.

Public feedback focused on the land use portion of the plan - notably increased restrictions in environmental conservation, agricultural preservation and preservation zoning districts.

The proposed zoning density changes drastically reduce the scope of development allowed on nearly one-quarter million acres outside the county's designated urban and town growth areas.

The comprehensive plan draft proposes the following zoning density restrictions:

- Property owners in preservation zoning districts would be limited to one home per 30 acres. The existing limit is one home per three acres.

- Property owners in environmental conservation zoning districts would be limited to one home per 20 acres. The current limit is one home per two acres.

- Property owners in agricultural preservation zoning districts would be limited to one home per 10 acres. The current limit is one home per acre.

Karl Werder of Williamsport encouraged the county commissioners to adopt the revised plan as a "starting point," but to include provisions for the revitalization of existing structures.

The county has many empty buildings that could house new businesses, Werder said.

A number of speakers even called for a moratorium on development in areas zoned preservation and conservation until the revised comprehensive plan and the regulations with which it will be implemented are adopted.

"If we don't take these steps Pleasant Valley will no longer be called Pleasant Valley. It will be Developers' Valley - the result of a 20-year-old planning document and a Board of County Commissioners who took too long to act," said Henryetta Livelsberger of the Rohrersville area.

But county farmers and several others said approving the agricultural preservation density change would devalue their property and threaten the farm economy.

They called instead for increased funding for agricultural preservation programs, which allow farmers to sell their land's development rights.

"I believe the implementation of this plan is the quickest way to destroy Washington County's weak farm economy," said Harold "Hal" Phillips of Clear Spring.

The proposed tenfold down-zoning will greatly devalue farmers' "retirement accounts," he said, and decrease the property value on land farmers use as collateral for loans in lean times.

The down-zoning amounts to stealing farmers' land, Phillips said.

"I do feel it's the government taking away my land without just compensation," Fairplay farmer Allan Green said.

The land "is our pension," said Washington County Farm Bureau President Priscilla Harsh, an orchardist in Smithsburg. "A farmer should not be required to give up all his development options."

The best way to preserve agricultural land is to keep agriculture profitable, Harsh said.

The farm bureau advocates including in the comprehensive plan development options and incentives to mitigate land value loss from down-zoning, she said.

Williamsport farmer Charles Wiles and others said those who want to see farmland preserved should help cover the costs of agricultural preservation easements.

Wiles said his son added "20/20" to the name of the family's Futuraland farm because the phrase signifies perfect vision. He said the revised comprehensive plan, which looks to the year 2020, doesn't.

"I refuse to accept that as a perfect vision," Wiles said.

County officials hosted town meetings for public feedback on the more than 150 recommended changes to the comprehensive plan after the draft was released last May. The Planning Commission then made some changes before recommending in April that the County Commissioners adopt the revised version.

Several commissioners have said they hope to approve the plan before their terms end in November.

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