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Washington County citizens group pins candidates down on growth issues

September 09, 2002|by TIM ROWLAND

If you don't know where a candidate stands on growth issues, don't blame the Citizens for the Protection of Washington County, which both held a public forum on the topic and compiled a lengthy questionnaire pinning down would-be office holders on a number of sticky topics.

Normally I'm leery of any group that has the word "Citizens" in its title. As an old political dog from West Virginia once said, democracy is fine until the people start getting mixed up in it.

So it is with some trepidation that I quote from the CPWC document, and I do so only because growth has pushed its way to the forefront of the 2002 local campaigns.

More than any other issue, the elections in Washington County will be a referendum on tightening land-use controls.

First it should be noted up front that Washington County currently is not "growing explosively" as some candidates are wont to tell you. According to the most recent Census maps, there are only two spots in the county where population is increasing with anything approaching modest growth: One is the Smithsburg area, the other is the state prisons south of Hagerstown.

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But the CPWC would no doubt respond, and it would be right, that the time to get a handle on land use is before a crisis of population arises. Counties that haven't been prepared for growth have paid the price.

And there are some ominous signs. Frederick County seems to have no qualms about getting into bed with a building moratorium, and strains on its water supply in this dry year have compelled it to do just that. To the south, fast-growing Jefferson County, W. Va., has a vocal and energetic anti-growth contingent (and probably needs one). If you squeeze the population balloon in Jefferson and Frederick there is a good chance it will to a degree pop out here.

Also, there is anecdotal evidence that several developers are sitting on big hunks of land, waiting for a time when demand will make it pay to subdivide.

Personally, I hate the idea of telling folks where they can and can't live and telling a man what he can and can't do with his own private property. But I also really appreciate a good view and an unspoiled countryside.

So I will argue mildly against land controls, while secretly rooting for the CPWC to come out on top. That ought to assuage my conscious while still producing the result most beneficial to myself. Anyone who finds this approach offensive and hypocritical is free to petition for action out of our congressman. That shouldn't cost me any sleep.

If the first stage of the biggest land battle here since 1862 is to come in the elections, the second appears to be set for early next year in Annapolis, where the sitting lawmakers are clearly divided over a tax on new development.

Most folks on both sides of the issue agree there is a public cost associated with preserving the countryside. The public (the taxpayer) is essentially buying a communal right to enjoy the scenery, limit traffic, etc. This pay-per-view is necessary, because otherwise the landowner would (theoretically) be free to sell to the highest bidder, who nine times out of 10 wants to build something.

There are several common ways to pay for land preservation (all of which find their way into the wallet of the new homebuyer), such as property transfer taxes and impact fees. The mechanism with the most local momentum seems to be an excise tax on new housing construction.

In the CPWC questionnaire, Washington County Sens. Don Munson and Alex Mooney oppose the excise tax, while Dels. John Donoghue and Chris Shank are in support. Undoubtedly the issue will come up this session and it may be the winter's most compelling issue, if you happen to be a policy wonk.

My hat goes off to the CPWC for setting a neat little trap (whether intentional or not I do not know) that bagged two candidates clean.

Prior to the question on an excise tax, the group asked candidates if they supported a program to pay farmers for land restrictions that make their property less valuable.

Sens. Munson and Mooney said they favored compensating farmers, then two questions later said they would not support a tax that would pay for this compensation. (County Commissioner Greg Snook and delegate candidate Bob Bruchey also opposed the excise tax, but favored transfer tax and impact fees respectively to pay for the costs of preservation.)

Of all my political pet peeves, this is my pettiest: Politicians who loudly take credit for a new government program and brag about it on their campaign literature, then turn around and vote against a way to pay for the program - and brag in their campaign literature how they held the line against taxes (hi, Roscoe).

The questionnaire has some other real gems (Munson was the only responding candidate who feels that Washington County doesn't have enough warehouses) but length precludes listing them all here. The CPWC is in the process of establishing a Web site, which will include the full text hopefully before the general election. When it's up, it will be very educational and entertaining reading for those 20 percent of the people who still vote.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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