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Commissioners schizophrenic on moratorium

June 19, 2003|by TIM ROWLAND

-- Commentary

So is it a moratorium or a lessitorium? Or a moreorlessatorium?

In the annals of sloppy policy making, the Washington County Commissioners erstwhile, drought/growth-related building ban may be the most schizophrenic ever. Here's a rough event line:

1. Citing the extremely dry weather and rapid growth, the commissioners ban construction.

2. But not all construction - parts of the county are exempt.

3. Drought ends.

4. Moratorium doesn't.

5. Commissioners say moratorium was never about the drought, it was about containing growth until county can enact a development plan.

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6. Commissioners extend moratorium, saying developers shouldn't be allowed to skirt new restrictions on growth.

7. Commissioners permit eight new developments, thus allowing them to skirt new restrictions on growth.

Somehow I missed the press release when the commissioners hired Sibyl as their new county administrator. This moratorium has more personalities than a weatherman cocktail mixer.

The point of most moratoriums is to stop planned development. Now, the commissioners are allowing the moratorium to be overridden BECAUSE the developments were "planned."

In theory, public policy is drafted by considering all relevant contingencies and passed only after considering all long- and short-term implications.

Not here.

The whole thing was built on a house of political cards that human nature and Mother Nature have conspired to ungracefully flatten.

The drought part was good. That let the commissioners pander to the land-preservation crowd, while telling the developers that it wasn't the county's fault, it was God's.

They also quickly told developers not to worry, because they would review the moratorium after six months and if conditions warranted, it would be lifted.

Well, apparently the Almighty was uncomfortable playing the role of pawn for the County Commissioners, and proceeded to drench the region with about 30 inches of precipitation.

So the six months is up and the commissioners extend the moratorium anyway, even though water tables are overflowing. That's when it became a growth-control issue, not a drought-reaction issue, much in the way weapons of mass destruction ceased to be the reason we invaded Iraq.

The county's about-face pleased preservationists, but the commissioners were only able to bask in the accolades for about 30 seconds before the developers showed up with an annoyed "ahem."

"Oh, right," the commissioners said, and (with the exception of Dori Nipps, who was consistent and John Munson, who was absent) did yet another dance last week when they lifted the moratorium for eight subdivisions with room for 313 houses.

OK, so now the moratorium applies to, take a deep breath, residential subdivisions of six or more lots on land outside the designated Urban or Town Growth areas, which are areas where growth is encouraged, unless the subdivision was platted before Oct. 31, 2002.

That's on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays on months containing the letter R on subdivisions whose name contains the word "Meadows."

Perhaps I'm wrongly accusing the commissioners of being scatterbrained when I should be praising them for being flexible. If not admirable, it's at least amusing to watch them play this game of political Twister as they contort their limbs to reach out and touch every special-interest group in the county while maintaining plausible deniability that they are doing just that.

Pretty soon though, a big developer is going to approach the county and say: I want to create 100 lots on land that is outside of a designated Urban or Town Growth area and I platted it just last week. Then if that developer has a friend in county government, which of course he will, the commissioners will have to dream up another exemption. (The need to put the county's surplus water to use, perhaps.)

Which is clearly not good. Because as a homeowner, I strongly favor the moratorium because it will increase my own personal property values. In fact, I not only favor the building moratorium, I favor the mandated demolition of existing houses. Anything to drive up prices.

You say a young couple just starting out and on a limited income will protest? Let them go to Boonsboro and drink the water.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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