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Drought could bring halt to new building

September 25, 2002|by JULIE E. GREENE

julieg@herald-mail.com

With at least three Washington County Commissioners indicating support for a limited moratorium on residential development in rural areas, county officials decided Tuesday night to hold a public hearing on the matter.

County Administrator Rodney Shoop said he expects the public hearing to be held in three weeks, giving the commissioners a chance to vote on a building moratorium before the Nov. 5 general election.

More than 50 people attended the county commissioners' night meeting at the Maugansville Goodwill Volunteer Fire Co. Several people spoke on the growth issue before the commissioners even heard updates on drought and development.

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After hearing those updates, County Commissioner Bert L. Iseminger said he didn't need to hear further evidence to support some form of a building moratorium for one year.

After learning the county's adequate public facilities ordinance and most of its zoning laws are expected to be updated within a year, Iseminger said he wanted a one-year moratorium on new residential subdivisions in rural agricultural areas that rely on wells and septic systems.

County Commissioners Vice President Paul L. Swartz and Commissioner John Schnebly said they agreed with Iseminger, but after the meeting Schnebly said he was only willing to consider a moratorium.

Schnebly said he wanted more time to reflect, had follow-up questions for the experts that presented evidence Tuesday night and wanted to hear the parameters of a proposed moratorium before he would support one.

County Commissioners President Gregory I. Snook didn't tell the crowd his position on a moratorium. Commissioner William J. Wivell was absent because he was attending a church service, Snook said.

Iseminger and Schnebly both said they feared the burden on county taxpayers down the road if rapid growth led to wells and septic systems going bad. The cost of helping those residents would fall on the county because the state wouldn't bail out the county, they said.

About half of the county's residents rely on groundwater sources such as wells, said Washington County Agricultural Extension Agent Don Schwartz, who is the county drought coordinator for the Maryland Department of the Environment.

Wells at Oak Ridge, Sandy Hook, Mount Aetna, Cascade and Boonsboro have dropped in the last three weeks, Schwartz said. The county is still receiving applications for emergency agricultural wells.

While the average precipitation during the last several years doesn't look bad, there was a deficit during the last two recharge seasons, Schwartz said. Recharge seasons last six to seven months and occur when trees and crops aren't putting heavy demands on groundwater, he said.

The number of replacement wells (117 as of Sept. 9) and average well depth (325 feet) have increased, said Laurie Bucher, environmental health director for the Washington County Health Department. Some major creeks and wells are at or approaching record lows, she said.

The number of preliminary consultations the Washington County Planning Department has had for residential developments of five lots or more this year is five inside the urban growth area, but 15 in the rural areas, Planning Director Robert Arch said.

Before those statistics were announced, several people in the audience spoke on both sides of the issue.

Smithsburg area resident Debbie Bennett said she moved to the county three years ago and she's concerned recent development near her and more on the way could affect her well's water supply.

"Every day I keep my fingers crossed that I still have water," Bennett said.

Gerald Ditto said he was concerned the drought, low commodity prices and upcoming tighter zoning restrictions would drive more farmers to sell their land to developers.

"Every farm that's being sold, no farmer can afford to buy it," said Ditto, who is a member of the county's Agricultural Land Preservation Advisory Board.

Realtor Lynn Lowry, of Hagerstown, said she doesn't want to see rapid growth or see growth stopped. Lowry said she is looking for fairness and moderate growth to continue.

Lowry said a moratorium would affect "another working class," one of Realtors and people in the building industry.

"There's a trickle-down effect to this," Lowry said.

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