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A couple in need of a good counselor

November 27, 2002|by BOB MAGINNIS

More than 25 years ago, I watched as the marriage of two of my closest friends fell apart. It was messy, but I'll spare readers all the details except one.

Whenever I talked to them, each made a credible case that the other was the real villain, not because it was true, but because they had convinced themselves that it was so.

That's about where Hagerstown and Washington County officials are right now. And unlike a divorce, which affects only one family, the dispute could cost taxpayers money for years to come. It is time for the community to push the two governments to seek some help to resolve their dispute.

The crux of the disagreement is the city's decision to require developers who want city water and sewer service to annex their properties. The county and a number of developers don't like the idea and even though the current county board has only weeks to go on its term, it's threatening to sue the city.

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The two governments will try to settle their differences one more time when they meet on Dec. 2, according to Commissioner William Wivell. Wivell, who said he's met with every councilmember one-on-one on this issue, will finish his rounds that day with Councilman Linn Hendershot. Both government's lawyers will also attend, Wivell said.

Throughout this squabble, I haven't been able to understand why the county cares about city annexation policy. The county will continue to get its share of property taxes, and as Councilman Kristin Aleshire said, annexation would relieve the county of the responsibility for providing police and fire protection.

In a Monday interview, Wivell said that the city is obligated to serve these areas because it signed an agreement years ago making it a regional utility. Nor does the city know how much it will cost to serve those areas, Wivell said.

Asked if the county knows what its cost would be to serve those areas, Wivell said there's no detailed formula like the one Carroll County has, but it has figured that to break even, any dwelling built has to have a price of more than $113,000.

I also asked Wivell why the county is challenging the city's utility rate schedule, which charges more to customers outside the city. Earlier in the dispute, Commissioners Bert Iseminger and John Schnebly said developers would want to annex because city rates were cheaper.

That's not necessarily so, Wivell said, because it won't be the developers who pay, but those they sell to. The city is entitled to a fair return if it costs more to serve areas outside its boundaries Wivell said, but that hasn't been proven yet.

Isn't it true, I asked Wivell, that what developers want to do is to be able to do is advertise that the homes they build will have city services without city taxes? Wivell said he'd never seen an ad like that. I have.

Talks between Iseminger and Aleshire did produce the seeds of a compromise, although Aleshire and Wivell disagree on why it fell apart.

It has three points. Those who want to develop land immediately adjacent to the city would have to seek annexation and be turned down by the city before the county would review their projects. The city would agree not to extend services outside the Urban Growth Area but developers of all the properties within the UGA could continue to apply for city services.

Aleshire feels the city cannot yield on this issue because if the properties on Hagerstown's border are developed without annexing, the city will be land-locked and unable to grow later. Wivell feels the county, with its Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance, would be better able to deal with development. Aleshire argues that the APFO actually encourages sprawl by exempting small subdivisions.

On and on it goes, with elected officials trading arguments in what seems like an endless game of ping-pong because neither can talk about a problem without bringing in a dozen side issues.

No doubt those issues are important, but it's impossible to resolve all of them at once. Someone has to help elected officials concentrate on settling something simple, then moving on to the next thing, until trust grows enough so that both sides can have a discussion as opposed to an argument.

Who might help? It would have to be someone who has the respect of both sets of elected officials and the community at large.

Two possibilities come to mind. The first is Norman Shea, former president of Hagerstown Community College, and Richard Phoebus, chairman of the board of the Community Foundation of Washington County.

Both are capable of understanding the issues involved and have experience in helping reconcile different points of view. More important, both would have credibility if they announced that one side or the other wasn't making a good-faith effort.

Is there another way to settle this? Maybe, but before the two governments decide to go forward with an expensive lawsuit, they should have enough respect for the people who'll pay the legal bills to give mediation a try.

Bob Maginnis is editorial page editor of The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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