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Comprehensive plan is great for wealthy folks fleeing cities

July 28, 2002|by TIM ROWLAND

As an avid bicyclist, I am thrilled with Washington County's proposed comprehensive plan, the blueprint that for some very critical years in the county's future will tell people where they can and can't build their homes.

One of the perks of living here is the wide open farmlands that produce not just food for the stomach, but food for the eyes. I ride all over the county feasting on emerald fields of alfalfa, smelling the fragrance of the ripening corn and enjoying the beauty of a golden field of just-cut wheat and bales of yellow straw standing out against the blue mountain ridges.

I've always loved farms, even barnyard smells. And I'm happy that the comprehensive plan moves to protect this farmland by limiting development and greatly reducing the number of homes that can be built - restricting homes to as few as one every 10 to 30 acres.

If I owned one of these farms though, I might be whistling a different tune.

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As much as I love farms, I love freedom more, and something stirs uncomfortably when the government starts restricting what a private person can do with his private property.

A West Virginia orchardist, weary of battling with the Legal Services agency, once said resignedly "Well, I guess it's easier to tear down a capitalist - after all, we do own the land."

And the farmers own the farms. Our nation was founded on the ideals of using one's resources to his or her best advantage, whether those resources be talent, skill, innovation, money or property.

The government wouldn't presume to tell Garth Brooks, "sorry, we already have enough country music artists in the United States of America, you have to be a welder," although maybe it should.

But governments will tell farmers, "sorry, we already have enough subdivisions, so we're not going to let you cut your own property up into acre lots."

You can say Garth Brooks is lucky to have a great voice and you can say (if they inherited it) that farmers are lucky to have all that pretty land. But the point is, it's theirs and should be theirs to use or not use as they see fit.

The point has been made by others that if you are restricted to selling one housing lot every 10 acres, the value or your land is dramatically reduced - the land is the farmer's nest egg, and what the county has planned would be similar to us losing half the value of our 401(k) account, not that I can imagine that ever happening.

To that, I would add that it seems unfair to me that farmers who got out 10 years ago were able to subdivide (and profit) almost at will, while those farmers who have held out this long will not be able to do the same. It's almost like the better farmer you are and the longer you can stay in business and hold out against development, the more you are financially punished.

Of course farmers aren't the only ones being punished. Another problem with the mansion-on-a-10-acre-hill paradigm, is that living in the country becomes an option available only to the rich.

People of limited means with $70,000 to $100,000 to spend on a home will be relegated to crowded townhome developments and cookie-cutter subdivisions on the city outskirts. With big lots come big homes with big price tags. The people who buy these $350,000 properties will not be from here. They will be from metropolitan counties. And what's they first thing they will want to do once they have theirs? Make it even harder for anyone else to get a home by feverishly waving the "We've got to stop growth!" banner. Meanwhile, native Washington County families earning a combined $60,000 a year have no chance to claim a rural piece of their homeland.

A young couple just starting out may want to live in the country; and a farmer may be willing to whittle off an acre of land for them - but the law won't allow it.

As a country kid, I have no problem with upscale urban neigborhoods being the exclusive domain of the rich. They can have it. But when the government makes it so that the wealthy are the only ones able to enjoy the wide open spaces as well, it really sticks in my craw.

It's hard to get mad at the county over this. Even though it's technically a county plan, it's being drawn under the watchful eye of the state Smart Growth office, and if we don't do what they want us to do, I suspect there will be threats of diminished state funding.

I understand Smart Growth perfectly well, and in theory at least, agree with many of its precepts. Cluster people and the services they require together and you reduce sprawl, reduce traffic and increase efficiencies with regard to schools and utilities.

I'm sure to a planner sitting behind his drafting board in Annapolis it all looks very neat and tidy when he, with the stroke of his pen, dictates that hundreds if not thousands will live out their lives in little boxes made of ticky tacky clustered in orderly row upon row on the fringe of town.

But that's hardly life, liberty and the pursuit of housing happiness. People in this country should be free to live in a spot because their surroundings make them happy, not because some bureaucrat 100 miles away has penned them into some antiseptic "urban growth corridor."

Protecting the countryside from housing is like having the gorgeous, perfectly ordered living room that no one ever enters for fear of messing it up. We may have a beautiful, pristine countryside and that's nice. But who will ever see it and enjoy it, short of the highly privileged few and a handful of lonely bikers?

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. He may be reached at timr@herald-mail.com

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