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Panel may decide to lift moratorium on building

May 13, 2003|by TARA REILLY

tarar@herald-mail.com

While builders say Washington County's six-month ban on major residential developments in rural areas has driven up the cost of homes, preservationists say the move has been instrumental in preserving the county's agricultural landscape.

Since the moratorium went into effect in November 2002, eight subdivisions with a total of 313 lots proposed in rural parts of the county have yet to be built, their fate hinging on whether the Washington County Commissioners decide to lift the ban, County Planning Director Robert Arch said.

The moratorium applies to residential subdivisions proposed for six or more lots on land outside the designated Urban or Town Growth areas, where growth is encouraged.

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The moratorium does not apply to the issuance of building permits.

The commissioners are to discuss whether to lift the moratorium or keep it in place today at 2:40 p.m. in the County Administration Building at 100 W. Washington St., Room 226.

Debi Turpin, executive vice president of the Home Builders Association of Washington County, said the moratorium has increased the cost of building a home by as much as $15,000.

The moratorium has put demand on land in areas where growth is allowed, resulting in higher land prices, and ultimately, more expensive homes for interested buyers, she said.

"It's not the developers that are paying this. It's the homebuyer," Turpin said. "Hopefully, the commissioners will lift this moratorium."

Turpin said the county's average median income is $44,500. A family at the median income can typically afford a $135,000 home, she said.

Because the moratorium has increased the price of land, the median house price is $160,000 to $170,000, Turpin said.

She said those in the homebuilding business oppose the moratorium.

Henryetta Livelsberger of Citizens for the Protection of Washington County said the moratorium has nothing to do with increased land prices.

She said an influx of people from Frederick County and other counties east of here are placing a demand on land countywide, which is increasing the cost of new homes.

"I don't think the moratorium is responsible for drawing up the cost. It's just demand," Livelsberger said.

The commissioners approved the moratorium in the hope of preventing developers from rushing to submit subdivision plans before the county's zoning ordinance is rewritten as part of the Comprehensive Plan.

The commissioners approved the Comprehensive Plan in August 2002 in an attempt to control and direct growth to designated growth areas, but the county must rewrite the zoning ordinance before that happens. At the time, county officials said the rewriting process would take a year or more.

Once the Comprehensive Plan is enacted, the moratorium no longer will be needed, county officials said.

The commissioners also said they approved the moratorium so taxpayers wouldn't be stuck with the costs of overdevelopment, if it were to happen.

Citizens for the Protection of Washington County recently submitted to the commissioners a petition the group said contains more than 300 signatures of those who support the moratorium remaining in place until the county is finished rewriting the zoning ordinance.

Members of the group say they think growth should be controlled to preserve the county's rural areas and historic sites.

Livelsberger said the county will see nothing but "sprawl, sprawl, sprawl" if the moratorium is lifted before the zoning ordinance is rewritten.

Turpin, however, said the county's growth is minimal at 1 percent per year, with about 600 to 700 housing permits issued annually. She said she expects growth to remain at about that rate.

"I think the perception is, 'If this moratorium is lifted, there's going to be this run on land in the county,'" she said. "Will there be a mad rush for land? I really don't think so."

Commissioner John C. Munson said whether to lift the moratorium will be a tough decision.

"People have the right to live where they want, when they want and to have as much land as they want," Munson said. "But at the same time, I like the open space."

Munson said he's leaning toward keeping the moratorium in place for another six months until the county can control growth through the updated zoning ordinance and implementation of the Comprehensive Plan.

The commissioners also are considering an amendment to the county's subdivision ordinance that would require that the densities of new subdivisions comply with the Comprehensive Plan.

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