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Development or not: Either way has a cost

August 27, 2002|by BOB MAGINNIS

The Washington County government's farm preservation fund is running out of money just as local development is heating up. Local voters have to decide how much they're willing to pay more to preserve the rural character of Washington County.

Forty farm owners who control 4,500 acres have applied for the tax-credit program, which protects the land from development for 10 years and allows farmers to sell their development rights to the Agricultural Land Preservation Program.

But the fund has only enough cash left to enroll three farms, with 627 total acres, into the program, according to Eric Seifarth, land preservation administrator for the county.

Because the program is funded with an agricultural transfer tax, there won't be more cash available until more farms are developed - the opposite of what the program is trying to accomplish.

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From another county office comes a report that shows that, compared to the last fiscal year, building permits for wood-frame homes are up 36 percent. With a building moratorium in Frederick, it's logical to assume the county's previous slow growth rate will speed up.

So what's the answer? The first is for everyone to acknowledge that either option - development or preservation - will cost existing taxpayers more.

If the county enrolls more farms, the county's general fund will have to kick in more money, because with its own budget troubles, the state is unlikely to up its contribution. And if widespread development occurs, the taxpayers will pay for things like new schools and roads, since residential development rarely generates enough tax revenue to cover those items.

Even a moratorium would only help temporarily, unless the county could prove that it lacked a vital resource, like water. It's time for county residents - and the candidates who hope to lead their government - to decide whether they want to pay now for the privilege of living in a rural area, or later, when the cost of that development comes due.

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