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Farmland value key to plan

Public comments that some changes to the county's comprehensive plan may hurt the value of farmland back up the commissioners' s

Public comments that some changes to the county's comprehensive plan may hurt the value of farmland back up the commissioners' s

July 19, 2002|by ANDREA ROWLAND

andrear@herald-mail.com

Citizen input at a public hearing reinforced the Washington County Commissioners' own views on proposed revisions to the county's comprehensive plan, the commissioners said Thursday.

About 200 people attended the Wednesday night hearing at Hagerstown Community College's Kepler Theater.

More than 40 county residents spoke, most commenting on proposed increased restrictions in environmental conservation, agricultural preservation and preservation zoning districts.

Comments were about evenly split between those who favor the restrictions because they want to curb development, and those who oppose the agricultural zone restrictions due to potential land value loss.

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"That's kind of where the rubber meets the road," Commissioners President Greg Snook said.

Snook supports the majority of the proposed changes to the plan, but remains "hung up" on the agricultural zoning density restrictions, he said.

According to the plan, property owners in agricultural preservation zoning districts would be limited to one home per 10 acres. The current limit is one home per acre.

The testimony of some local farmers at the hearing also solidified Commissioner Paul Swartz's position that the plan's proposed agricultural density restrictions might cause more harm than good.

A number of farmers said the proposed tenfold down-zoning would devalue their property, limiting their ability to borrow money and sell small parcels for development during hard times.

"That's been haunting me all night," Swartz said. "Farmers rely on their land for their futures. If we approve a down-zoning that affects that, it will bother me to the grave."

The public input also reinforced Commissioner William Wivell's belief that "it is not fair to take away someone's right to develop their land without just compensation."

Wivell would rather avoid changing the densities, instead adjusting for future development through revisions to the county's adequate public facilities ordinance and the purchase of additional agricultural preservation easements, he said.

Commissioner Bert Iseminger said he was "strongly leaning" toward adopting the plan as is with "some sort of consideration for the equity losses when it comes to true farmers," although he's not convinced that down-zoning would hurt land values in the long run.

Commissioner John Schnebly also remains unconvinced that the proposed down-zoning would result in long-term land value losses, he said, and plans to discuss the issue with real estate appraisers in another Maryland county in which farmland has been down-zoned.

Schnebly said he's "sort of leaning" toward the position of those who expressed concern about the potential fallout from overdevelopment.

The commissioners agreed with farmers and other county residents who said Wednesday that more money needs to be funneled into agricultural preservation programs.

Many farmers said they would be willing to sell their land's development rights at fair market value through agricultural preservation easements. The county and its citizens must commit more funds to agricultural preservation programs, farmers said.

Iseminger wants to establish a sign-up deadline for the Maryland Agricultural Preservation Program to gauge how many farmers are interested, he said.

Snook and Swartz said they plan to research such possible agricultural preservation funding sources as excise taxes and transfer of development rights (TDR), a method for protecting land by transferring the development rights from one area and giving them to another.

A county real estate transfer tax that would piggyback the state transfer tax could raise millions for farmland preservation, school construction and other worthy projects, county officials have said.

Swartz and Iseminger said they will continue to lobby for a transfer tax.

State lawmakers have twice rejected the idea, but they might relent if they heard the public outpouring of support to save the county's rural agricultural heritage and lands, Iseminger said.

"Things might change with the understanding of where the money's going to go," he said.

County taxpayers might also have to decide if they're willing to commit more dollars to agricultural preservation efforts, Iseminger said.

The commissioners said they hope to adopt a revised comprehensive plan before their terms end in November.

"One way or another, we're going to get this plan adopted before the election," Iseminger said. "I think it would be irresponsible for us not to. It's time for the county commissioners to take action."

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