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Letters to the editor - 4/5/03

April 07, 2003

Protect the land? Great! It only costs us $1,100 each to pay for it



By Thomas A. Firey

Growing up in Washington County, I learned that I shouldn't take something that I haven't paid for. That principle has both moral and economic value: Morally, it's unfair to take something without paying the owner; economically, paying for things leads to responsible choices about wants and needs.

Washington County's Commissioners will soon make a landmark decision on whether to take something. Last year, when the previous commissioners approved a new county comprehensive plan, they signaled an intention to amend local zoning so that, for more than 80 percent of the county, allowable housing density would change from a current average of roughly one home per 1.5 acres to a new average of about one home per 17.5 acres. County employees are drawing up the necessary downzoning ordinance, and the current commissioners will decide whether it becomes law.

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Clearly, a 12-fold change in the allowable density for over 80 percent of Washington County is a radical seizing of control of private land by county government. Unlike the previous 1.5-acre limit that distributed both costs and benefits to rural homeowners by providing a reasonable buffer zone between septic systems and wells, the new downzoning is intended to benefit Washington County's non-rural population by protecting the area's "rural charm." The downzoning will also benefit developers and land speculators who own or control the roughly 10,000 undeveloped acres in the county's growth zones. The cost will be borne by local farmers and other rural landowners whose property values will fall because the county seized control of their land.

How much value will be lost? Using academic projections of the "development value" of open land in Washington County (which I discussed in a Sept. 6, 2002 op-ed) along with data on land prices and the number of privately held acres that will be affected by downzoning, we can make an extremely conservative estimation that private owners of rural land in Washington County will lose $145.2 million in property value under the downzoning.

As I explained in a May 7, 2002 op-ed, the loss of that land value will have a devastating effect on agriculture in Washington County. A farmer's land is his chief economic asset, and he can draw on that land to obtain a loan or raise cash in financial hard times. The downzoning will devalue that asset significantly, making farming more financially risky and increasing current farmers' incentive to leave the profession.

Moreover, downzoning will discourage potential farmers from locating here because of the county's growing record of enacting anti-farmland policies. The result will be that agriculture here will resemble Montgomery and Baltimore counties, where productive farms have been replaced with idle, overgrown land and unproductive farmettes of "gentleman farmers" who seek a diversion from their city jobs.

Washington County can avoid that fate and still implement the new downzoning, but the county will have to follow the principle I learned as a child: It must pay for what it takes. If it does so, the county will treat landowners fairly, protect farmers' economic assets, and show potential farmers that the county respects farmland's value.

But how can the county, which already faces a budget shortfall, come up with $145.2 million (or however much more the 2002 ag census shows the development value to be)? One way would be a head tax the commissioners could implement a one-time-only tax of $1,100 on each man, woman and child in Washington County. That would be fair because the downzoning is intended to benefit everyone who lives here. Or the county could place a one-time levy of $2,780 on each house in Washington County, because property values will increase under the new density requirements.

Or the county could take a progressive approach and impose an additional countywide income tax of 13.9 percent for one year. Or the county could implement a $14,500 transfer tax on each acre in the growth zone because that land will be very valuable under downzoning. Or, finally, the county could give the whole $145.2 million bill to the Citizens for the Protection of Washington County, a special interest group that has pushed hard for downzoning and, I assume, most values its results.

But what if county residents do not want to pay $1,100 per person to purchase the development rights? What if they do not want to pay $2,780 per home? What if they do not want to give up an additional 13.9 percent of their income? What if the county refuses to install a $14,500 transfer tax for land in the growth areas because it would halt economic development in Washington County?

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