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Letters to the editor 9/6

September 06, 2002

Truth is, downzoning hurts land values



By Tom Firey

Voting 4-1 to accept a new comprehensive plan for development, Washington County's commissioners indicated last Wednesday that they will downzone some 80 percent of county ground in the coming months. Current zoning allows for a density of between one house per acre and one house per three acres on that land; after downzoning, 22.6 percent of county ground will be zoned for one house per 30 acres, another 30.4 percent will be zoned one house per 20 acres, and 28.4 percent will be zoned one house per five acres.

Prior to the vote, farmers charged that the plan would severely hurt their properties' value. Noting the current drought and the increasing costliness of trying to farm in Maryland, they claimed that downzoning would further threaten an endangered way of life. They said that if the county wants to protect open space, it should act with fairness to farmers and purchase protective easements instead of taking development rights without compensation.

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But county and state officials dismissed those assertions, saying downzoning does not affect long-term farmland values. "I'm not so sure we're looking at the kind of devaluation that people are fearing," Commissioner Bert Iseminger told the Herald after the vote. He and Commissioner John Schnebly claimed that similar action in other Maryland counties did not result in a decline in property values.

Iseminger and Schnebly's comments echo those made by state Department of Planning Secretary Roy Kienitz in a letter to the commissioners dated July 11 and in comments at a public meeting in Hagerstown six days later. Kienitz claimed that downzoning in six Maryland counties - Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll, Calvert, Harford, and Montgomery - improved farm prices. "Land values continued to go up in every case," he wrote in his letter, "and most landowners have benefited in both short and long terms." To support his assertion, he provided a bar chart purporting to show an increase in farmland prices after the counties downzoned. The graph itself cited the 1991 state report "The Effects of Agricultural Zoning on the Value of Farmland," which examined each of those counties except Calvert.

Did Iseminger, Schnebly, Kienitz and the 1991 report accurately reflect the truth about downzoning's effects? They did not, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Census of Agriculture. From 1992 to 1997, farmland prices fell in Baltimore and Montgomery counties despite the dramatic growth and soaring residential prices of the D.C.-Baltimore metroplex. What's more, farmland prices in all five counties lagged far behind inflation, which means the land's "real" value fell over that time. The decline ranged from 5.3 percent in Carroll to 22.6 percent in Baltimore County.

Looking over a longer period of time reveals a consistent pattern: Prior to downzoning, the real value of farmland was rising dramatically in each of the counties. The increase ranged from 11.2 percent in Baltimore County between 1969 and 1974 (prior to downzonings in 1976 and 1979) to 49.0 percent in Carroll between 1969 and 1978 (prior to a 1978 downzoning). After the land-use change, real property values in all five counties fell dramatically. Those declines ranged from 8.6 percent in Carroll County between 1978 and 1997, and 58.9 percent in Harford County (downzoned in 1977) between 1974 and 1997. (Federal data could not be used to determine the effects on Calvert County because it downzoned in 1997, the last year for which data are available. 2002 ag census data will be released in early 2004.)

The effects may be more severe than the data suggest. Though Carroll County showed an overall decline of only 8.6 percent in farm property values, the effect on farmers in the downzoned area has been much worse. In an article published in the Christian Science Monitor last summer, Lou Breitenother claimed that he cannot rent his 92-acre Woodbine farm for enough to cover his property taxes of $5,000 a year, nor can he find a buyer for the land.

Yet, across the road (and across the zoning boundary - or "freedom line" as the locals call it), the 425-acre Rash brothers' farm sold for $75,000 an acre. The Carroll County experience underscores the notion that downzoning is merely a grant of political favor to some landowners and harm to others. And it demonstrates downzoning's effect of converting productive ground into dilapidated, bankrupt farms.

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