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Moratorium lark severely damaged preservationists' cause

November 18, 2002|by TIM ROWLAND

Unwittingly, on the day that the Washington County Commissioners passed a moratorium on new development last month, the cause of growth control was set back by about eight years or more.

Such is often the case with sloppy policy thinking. The objective, no matter how noble, falls victim to an arrow of unperceived consequences through the heart of good intentions.

Last Tuesday's vote means that the moratorium will be in effect for no more than six months, if it makes it that long. And, barring unforeseen circumstances, that's the last you will hear of the M word in the halls of county government for - oh, I'd say about a decade.

Short-term, local politicians learned that 200 citizens at a public meeting, no matter how vocal, do not an electorate make.

But what a tough lesson it was, particularly for Bert Iseminger and Paul Swartz, who lost their seats on the County Commission by betting on the wrong pony.

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By pressing the issue of a moratorium on the eve of the election, the anti-development activists effectively erased any chance for re-election their two best friends on the commission might have had. It's jaw-dropping that preservation forces couldn't have at least waited one little month. The only explanation is that they greatly, and I mean greatly, overestimated their support.

When County Commissioner Greg Snook voted against the moratorium, somebody, somewhere should have said "uh-oh." The commission president is no stranger to playing to the crowd. But the Snook family is about as plugged in to the populace as you can get, and the fact that he wasn't buying into the growth-control activists meant that the crowd was a whole lot bigger, albeit quieter, on the other side of the issue.

On Election Day we saw how big.

If a candidate isn't up in the pre-dawn hours, he isn't likely to hear the conversation among the construction laborers who gather for coffee at the neighborhood Sheetz before heading to the jobsite.

To these men, a moratorium was a threat to their livelihood. In a year of a Republican tidal wave, any Democrat who alienated even a fraction of his traditional base, such as labor, was dead.

And for once, labor and contractors were on the same page. Combine them with a generally conservative population that gets cranky at the mention of private property restrictions and you had the recipe for a severe and hostile voter recoil.

It's not infrequent for a groundswell of public opinion to bark up the wrong survey post. But this time the masses had it right. There was absolutely no good public policy reason for a housing moratorium, no matter how limited, in a county that is plodding along with a growth rate of 2 percent.

Groundwater? Mother Nature has a cruel way of mocking people who believe that after a dry summer or two it will never rain again. Since the moratorium was first mentioned at a commissioners' meeting, we've been averaging better than a half-inch or rain a week.

To keep a bevy of developers at bay until the comprehensive plan is implemented? Developers are businessmen. No matter what Ronald Reagan said, demand drives supply and without hordes of willing buyers (see 2 percent growth rate above) even land that is approved for subdivision will sit empty.

Roads, schools and services? People have the idea that if a 900-home development is approved 900 families will move in overnight. In fact, such large housing plans generally take 20 years to fulfill. That's plenty of time for any competent (and here, given our track record, I am admittedly reaching) local government to keep pace. Besides, if they choose to use them, there are already legal tools in the books that governments have for restricting developments that unduly overburden the system.

From a policy standpoint in a nation built on free enterprise, a moratorium is a desperate, last- ditch measure to be used only when growth is rampant and all other measures have failed. It should never be enacted on a whim, or when circumstances are less than dire.

The sad thing is that this ill-thought-out moratorium has severely damaged a truly worthy objective. Estimable and thoughtful people have written brilliantly in these pages about the need to preserve our beauty, our history and our traditionally rural ambiance. In the spirit of healthy debate, I may not agree with all of their positions, but they are absolutely correct in this fundamental truth: The time for planning growth is before it arrives, not after.

(And before developers get too giddy with the election results, it might be good to remind them that to the extent the county is growing, it's because of our rural charm. Wreck it and potential homebuyers aren't going to find that drive over Braddock and South mountains very appealing.)

Had they kept their powder dry and not demanded a moratorium, the more hard-core preservationists would be in a far stronger position. Instead, politicians now have electoral proof that slow-growth feelings in the county run deep, but not wide.

The damage is palpable. Without the moratorium lark, slow-growth activists had a very real chance in the legislature this winter of winning some sort of development tax to simultaneously slow down growth a bit and help pay for the service needs that new growth creates. Now there's a good chance that incremental but important measures will also be lost.

If it's back to square one for the cause of preservation, perhaps at least this lesson can be taken from the election that will prevent future missteps: Certainly there are ways to prepare against runaway growth, but runaway activism isn't one of them.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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