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A halt to building? Try a compromise

October 17, 2002

Should Washington County enact a one-year moratorium on large housing developments in rural areas? The county commissioners will hear an earful on that at a public hearing tonight at 7 p.m. at the county courthouse.

In considering this question, the commissioners have to balance the need to protect groundwater resources against the financial hardships it would cause some local workers in the building trades.

The commissioners have already moved to protect small builders by exempting those developments of six or fewer lots, those developed inside designated growth zones where municipal water and sewer are available.

For those whose projects don't fall into those categories, the commissioners must decide whether to put on the brakes. As they will no doubt be reminded, people who've made plans and spent funds based on the law as it now exists could take major financial hits.

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The other side of this argument is that the county is really not sure how much water is in the ground. And the commissioners worry that if a series of wells fall - 117 local replacement wells had been dug this year as of Sept. 9 - county government will come under major pressure to extend municipal water systems at great cost.

As we said Oct. 3, those who buy new homes served by wells should be informed that if a well goes dry, it's up to them to pay for the replacements.

That said, government has some responsibility to protect prospective buyers, by informing them of the risk and by putting some limits on residential developments in areas where many wells have failed - at least until the county can get its underground resources surveyed.

The commissioners will meet with an expert in that area later this month, but have already heard that it will take four years of above-average rainfall to recharge the groundwater.

Until the experts determine how much water is there now, the best compromise might be to limit the moratorium to areas where wells are already failing and warn would-be homebuyers that it's their responsibility, not the county's, to dig replacement wells.

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