Growth ban considered

September 23, 2002|by ANDREA ROWLAND

A majority of the Washington County Commissioners said last week that water worries have prompted them to strongly consider a moratorium on development in the county.

"My main concern is water right now," Commissioner Bert L. Iseminger said. "We certainly need to make sure we stay in front of that issue and are not reactive to it."

The county's drought-afflicted water supply sources would be further taxed by new development, especially sizable subdivisions in areas of the county where water is not supplied by the Potomac River, moratorium supporters and others say.


Moratorium backers such as members of Citizens for Protection of Washington County and the Washington County Agricultural Land Preservation Advisory Board also say a moratorium could prevent new development that contradicts land-use guidelines in the county's recently revised comprehensive plan.

A moratorium is a police action that essentially limits private property rights, so the commissioners must determine such a move is in the best interests of the county, County Attorney Richard Douglas said. "This is not something you enter into lightly," he said.

The commissioners on Tuesday will discuss whether or not to temporarily freeze development - a move that may be necessary due to "mounting evidence" from groups such as the county's Drought Coordinating Committee, Iseminger said.

The drought has devastated water sources other than the Potomac River, committee Chairman Don Schwartz said.

Water levels at area creeks, springs, wells and reservoirs that supply water to half of the county's homes and businesses are dwindling to historic lows, Schwartz said.

The Washington County Health Department has issued about 120 permits for emergency wells so far this year, he said.

"Nothing like this has ever occurred since we've been keeping records. It's never been this serious," Schwartz said. "We have limited water resources that are being stressed now. How much more do we want to stress them?"

Why a moratorium?

Moratoria generally are used to prevent land development that may be inconsistent with a proposed or pending zoning plan or zoning change, but may also be imposed to help curb drought-related water shortages, Douglas said.

The commissioners would decide the moratorium's duration and the area the action would encompass based on the reason or reasons for it, Douglas said.

Commissioners Vice President Paul L. Swartz favors a moratorium to protect the county's drought-threatened water resources and to prevent out-of-county developers from building in rural areas before new zoning laws and other regulations associated with the revised comprehensive plan take effect, he said.

The commissioners in late August adopted the revised plan, which establishes guidelines for managing growth and development over the next 20 years.

The updated plan, which could be amended at any time, includes tighter zoning density restrictions for agricultural land. The plan cuts the number of housing units allowed on land zoned agricultural from one unit per acre to one unit per every 5 acres.

The zoning density change does not affect lots already approved for development.

"We don't want a situation which subverts the intent of the recently enacted comprehensive plan's land-use principles," Commissioner John Schnebly said.

Schnebly said he is "willing to weigh the options" if county planners point to an influx of developers trying to "gobble up land" before the tighter zoning restrictions are implemented.

Developing interest

More developers interested in land outside designated urban growth areas have been meeting with county planners, County Planning Director Robert Arch said.

"Historically, there hasn't been a whole lot of activity outside the urban growth area. We've had more," said Arch, who couldn't provide specific figures on Sept. 19.

It could easily take up to 18 months to implement revised zoning laws, he said.

Commissioners President Gregory I. Snook said he was "more concerned about the ground water side than the comprehensive plan side" of the argument for a moratorium.

Commissioner William J. Wivell said he would be "willing to consider a moratorium if it was warranted by weather patterns" or evidence that developers were trying to get building plans approved before the county's adequate public facilities ordinance is updated to conform with the comprehensive plan.

The ordinance states developers must provide information showing adequate road, water, sewage and schools capacity before a project can be approved. The developer must contribute toward any needed improvements.

It isn't yet clear how far-reaching a moratorium in the county could be, or how many acres of developable land could be affected, county officials said.

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