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Commissioners move to slow rural development

August 28, 2002|by TARA REILLY

tarar@herald-mail.com

In an attempt to control development in rural areas, the Washington County Commissioners voted Tuesday to tighten restrictions on the number of homes allowed on land zoned for agriculture, but the action wasn't as limiting as originally proposed.

The zoning change, which will not go into effect for at least two years, is part of the county's Comprehensive Plan. The County Commissioners, who had worked on the plan for four years, approved it by a 4-1 vote.

Under the plan, which could be amended at any time, one unit will be allowed for every 5 acres on land with an agricultural zoning. Currently, one unit per acre is allowed in the agricultural zone.

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The draft plan had called for development to be restricted to one unit for every 10 acres on land zoned agricultural.

The approved plan also allows one unit per 20 acres in land zoned environmental conservation and one unit per 30 acres in preservation zones. Both designations are new.

The changes would not affect lots already approved for development and would not affect the number of homes that can be built inside the Urban Growth Area, which is an area where growth is encouraged, according to county documents.

Commissioner William J. Wivell voted against the plan, saying he supports controlled growth but that the restrictions would devalue farmland.

The County Commissioners said they haven't ruled out halting development in certain parts of the county until the zoning changes go into effect.

Planning Director Robert Arch said it would probably take more than two years to rewrite the zoning ordinance and maps and make other changes before the plan goes into effect.

Commissioners President Gregory I. Snook and Commissioners Vice President Paul L. Swartz said they had concerns that allowing one home for every 10 acres in an agricultural zone would decrease the value of farmland, but said they'd compromise by allowing one home per five acres.

"Going to (one in 10 acres) is too much of a change," Snook said.

Commissioners Bert Iseminger and John Schnebly said they didn't think the one in 10 acre proposal would decrease land value, but that they also supported the one unit per 5 acre density that was approved.

Some farmers, while they said they supported controlled growth in rural areas, had argued that limiting development to one home per every 10 acres would lessen the worth of their land if they ever needed to sell it for retirement purposes or financial emergencies.

"I'm not so sure we're looking at the kind of devaluation that people are fearing," Iseminger said.

Iseminger and Schnebly said they have researched similar action taken by other counties in Maryland, and that those counties haven't had a problem with land values going down as a result.

Wivell said he thought the county should have a plan in place that would compensate farmers if the worth of their land is decreased.

"As much as I'd like to see one house per 100 acres, does government have the right to take the value away from some within our comprehensive plan?" Wivell asked. "We need to develop a plan to compensate the land owner."

Wivell said it's going to cost money to maintain the county's rural atmosphere.

"If we want that quality of life here in Washington County, we have to admit that we have to pay for it," Wivell said.

He suggested that the county tighten its adequate public facilities ordinance to help control growth. The ordinance states that developers must provide information showing adequate road, water, sewage and schools capacity before a project can be approved.

The other commissioners said they supported tightening that ordinance.

Iseminger said that putting more money into the Agricultural Land Preservation Program would help control growth and keep farming a viable industry, because the program restricts development on that land.

Swartz, who called for a moratorium on growth in June, questioned whether the planning department would support a stop on development until the new zoning restrictions go into effect.

Arch said the department would support the moratorium if it were limited to outside of the areas where growth is encouraged. He said Washington County is starting to see the effects of development that is spilling over from Frederick County, and that more developers are asking for between 20 to 30 lot subdivisions.

"I think it's something the board may want to give consideration to," Arch said of the possible moratorium.

Schnebly said the land use restrictions passed Tuesday are a good start to keeping Washington County from being overrun with development.

"I don't think we want to become one of those poster children for development that has run amok," he said.

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