Letters to the editor for 9/8

September 09, 2002

Comprehensive Plan takes without giving

I felt the need to clarify my vote on the proposed Comprehensive Plan recently adopted by a 4-1 vote by the Board of Washington County Commissioners. As its name implies, the Comprehensive Plan is a very detailed plan of which Washington County employees are to be commended for their efforts in drafting. My sole exception for failing to vote for the plan in its present form pertains to the proposed densities.

In making my decision, I not only listened to the hundreds of comments from citizens, but also sought additional objective material to resolve my own questions.

As an elected official, I struggled with the power of government to take property from someone without just compensation. Many individuals, including farmers, appeared before the board and expressed their dissatisfaction with a plan that could negatively impact their equity in their property.

Had I owned similar acreage, I too would have been upset if, by the swipe of a pen, someone had seriously impacted the value of my investment and my future options.


I was able to locate two studies to resolve this dilemma. The first study is "The Effects of Potential Land Development on Agricultural Land Prices," from the forthcoming Journal of Urban Economics.

Completed by the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, the study analyzed land in the 48 contiguous U.S. states and considered such factors as population, densities, access to highways, proximity to urban areas and amount of agricultural farmland available.

The study resolved that land values are impacted by both a rent component from farming the land as well as a development component, discounted from some future date of converting the property to nonfarm use. At 29 percent, the development component of the land value in Maryland actually ranked quite high - seventh highest of the 48 states. The authors further believe that the development component of the land value in Washington County is somewhere around 34 percent.

The second study, "The Joint Influence of Agricultural and Nonfarm factors on Real Estate Values: An Application to the Mid-Atlantic Region," was completed by researchers at the University of Maryland. This study also applies a complex econometric model in deriving the value of farmland as being equal to a discounted present value of rents from farming and the value at some future date of converting to nonfarm use.

This study analyzed data for 230 counties in six mid-Atlantic states, including Maryland. One quote from this paper stands out: "bigger houses on smaller lots and more houses per acre increase the value of an acre of developable land. . . " This study concludes that "farmers in the mid-Atlantic region will be affected more by events that change nonfarm income and house prices than by policies that specifically change farm returns. Furthermore, these effects, whether for better or worse, will be greater in rural counties where population density is lower and development is less.

It is my belief that a change in zoning and proposed densities would be such a "nonfarm event." I do realize that the Maryland Office of Planning has asserted that land values in some counties have increased since downzoning. This comparison, however, does not adjust for inflation or increases in value attributable to other factors. This same data, restated in real dollars, actually does show a decrease in values after downzoning.

For these reasons, I could not support the comprehensive plan without including provisions for compensation to landowners for any loss in the value of the land. By our very practice of purchasing easements against development rights, we have admitted that there is a value to the development potential of property.

No one likes to have something of value taken from them without compensation, and I, as an elected official, do not feel that it is fair for government to do so either. I would love to see only one house per 100 acres, but, if we as citizens desire to retain the rural nature of the county, then I feel that it is only fair that we reimburse landowners in exchange for this quality of life.

I do, however, recognize that development must pay its own way, and I think that there are actions that can be taken to ensure that this cost is not borne by existing residents, including changes that can be made to the County's Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance. For instance, there are provisions in this ordinance which allow for development to continue if road adequacy or school capacity will be adequate anywhere from two to six years into the future.

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