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Developments are a dilemma for the county

September 24, 2002|by TIM ROWLAND

My hat is off to developer Manny Shaool this morning, and it's not just because I forgot to duck when I walked under the water pipe in my basement.

First of all, let me say that I am like Sergeant Schultz. I know nothing. I have no idea whether he (Manny, not Sergeant Schultz) did this on purpose or not, but either way it sure is funny.

Shaool started out the year proposing a big subdivision in an area of the county where there are a lot of houses. But the people who lived in those houses didn't want more houses, so they pressured the county planning commission into voting against the proposal.

So Shaool last month went out and bought, according to a county planner, "an area that has the county's best agricultural soil and is one of the county's largest undeveloped blocks of land."

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He wants to build $225,000 to $325,000 homes on big lots (and to those who checked in poo-pooing my contention that developers might adopt a mansion-on-a-hill building philosophy, I would respectfully say, ha ha).

The beauty, of course, is that Shaool has already been told by the county that it doesn't want him building where there ARE houses. So now the county is going to turn around and tell him it doesn't want him building where there AREN'T houses?

You see the box the county has painted itself into. And you see what happens when policy is sacrificed on the altar of political expediency. (I don't know what "altar of political expediency" means exactly, but I saw it in a George Will column once and was so enthralled that I vowed to work it into one of my own pieces. It's a weighty thing I'm sure, whatever it is.)

No matter, it always follows that if you ask hard-core preservationists - and now, it seems, the County Commissioners: "Given the choice of

1.) a high-growth area where you happen to live, or

2.) a chunk of pristine farmland where you do not happen to live, where should a developer build?" they will always answer "West Virginia."

We may have the only de facto zoning map in the state based not on the suitability of the land, but on the political influence of the neighbors.

I'm all for protecting farmland, but I think a strong case can be made for the argument that developers ought to be able to build SOMEwhere. But where?

Wide open spaces are out, because we don't want to spoil the view. And residential areas are out because the populous doesn't like the idea of new neighbors - especially if the neighbors may be of a lower social or economic status. Wrecks the home values of the current residents, don't you know. Oh, and the schools. New development is always going to "overcrowd the schools." Forget the fact that schools in Washington County haven't grown since students were scratching their lessons on ramshorn parchment and the classrooms were heated with coal.

So the county is becoming one big Shepherdstown. You're welcome to come live here, so long as you don't build anything.

In keeping with that thinking, the county is looking at a moratorium on development, ostensibly because of the drought. The drought is as good an excuse as anything, I guess. But we got an inch and a half of "drought" over the weekend, and if rainfall gets back to normal, what's going to be the next reason we can't build - flooding?

Again, I think it's noble to fight to protect our farmland. But it would be slightly less maddening if the county, both government and people, would make up their minds. If saving farmland is paramount, then you have no right to complain about cramped conditions when a new subdivision is proposed next door to the one in which you live.

And if the county turns down a new subdivision in what is already a sea of subdivisions, then in my mind the developer has every right to build on the county's "best agricultural soil."

Congrats, Manny, for showing the county's indecision and lack of fortitude in such a good, strong light. Whether you meant to or not.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. He can be reached at 301-733-5131, ext. 2324, or you can e-mail him at timr@herald-mail.com.

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