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Growth moratorium OK'd

October 30, 2002|by TARA REILLY

tarar@herald-mail.com

In a close vote, the Washington County Commissioners decided Tuesday night to immediately halt new major developments in rural areas for up to a year, saying the moratorium will protect farmland and keep the county's ground water supply from drying up.

The board voted 3-2, with Commissioners Vice President Paul L. Swartz and Commissioners John L. Schnebly and Bert L. Iseminger in favor of the moratorium. Commissioners President Gregory I. Snook and Commissioner William J. Wivell voted against it.

"What we are doing is the right thing with our heads and with our hearts," said Swartz, who said people thought he was crazy when he first proposed the moratorium over the summer.

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"I guess I wasn't as crazy as everyone thought I was," Swartz said.

The commissioners who voted in favor of the moratorium said it will prevent developers from rushing to submit subdivision plans before the county's zoning ordinance is rewritten as part of the Comprehensive Plan.

The commissioners will review the moratorium in six months.

The commissioners approved the Comprehensive Plan in August in an attempt to direct growth to designated growth areas, but the county must rewrite the zoning ordinance before that happens. County officials said the rewriting process will take a year or more.

Iseminger said he supported the moratorium because taxpayers would be stuck with the costs of overdevelopment if it were to happen and that new developments might decrease ground water levels for current residents.

"Is that fair to existing citizens?" Iseminger said. "I don't think so."

The moratorium has come with its share of controversy. Supporters have said it's a necessary step to control growth, while opponents said the stop on growth in rural areas will negatively affect the county's attempt at economic development and harm the livelihood of small builders and those associated with the home building industry.

"This moratorium is not going to hurt the large builder, it's going to hurt the little guy," said Debi Turpin, executive vice president of the Home Builders Association of Washington County.

Turpin said the moratorium will cause housing prices to increase where major residential development is allowed and will deter new businesses from relocating to the county.

"A moratorium is a red flag to them that something is wrong," Turpin said. "We all know that there have been a lot of problems attracting businesses to Washington County, and I'm afraid that this might be another one."

Snook said he couldn't support the moratorium because the commissioners could have explored other ways to control growth.

Wivell said he opposed the action for several reasons, one of which was that he thought the moratorium was rushed.

The Hagerstown-Washington County Chamber of Commerce announced several hours before Tuesday's vote that it opposed the moratorium because it would affect local businesses that depend on residential construction.

The statement from the Chamber said the county should have taken into consideration the results of a proposed water supply survey before it voted.

The moratorium would apply to residential subdivisions of six or more lots on land outside the designated Urban or Town Growth areas where growth is encouraged. It would not apply to the issuance of building permits, Planning Director Robert Arch has said.

It also would not apply to subdivisions that have been accepted for filing by the planning department.

It would apply to developers who have had preliminary discussions with the planning department but whose plans have not been accepted for filing, Iseminger has said.

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