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Farmers, rurals, supporters of fairness: it's time to unite

August 10, 2003|By Thomas A. Firey

When my column "What really motivates the CPWC?" appeared in the June 15 Herald-Mail, I hoped it would give that group some pause. Despite its noble goal to protect Washington County's rural atmosphere, the CPWC advocates policies that will cause devastating financial loss to rural landholders and hurt the viability of local farming. That unfairness and economic harm undermine the group's goals to "preserve nature" and "keep things peaceful here," hence my ironic suggestion that the CPWC is really an anti-rural, anti-farm, anti-environment group with a hidden agenda.

A week later, CPWC president Jim Laird (June 20) and secretary Denise Troxell (June 21) responded with their own Herald op-eds. Astonishingly, their comments did more to depict the CPWC as an anti-rural, anti-farmer, anti-environment group than anything I wrote.

Laird's op-ed addressed just one point of mine: his group's disinterest in an offer from U.S. Geological Survey hydrologist Eric Greene to determine the depletion risk to Washington County's groundwater. Greene's proposal was warmly welcomed by the Herald editorial page, other anti-sprawl activists, and even some county officials (though not the County Commissioners).

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But Laird scoffed at Greene's offer (despite several earlier CPWC op-eds claiming the group worries about groundwater), and goes so far as to say people "should just be happy" that the CPWC didn't come out in opposition to the proposal. The CPWC would oppose an inexpensive study to determine the depletion risks posed to one of Washington County's most precious resources? That hardly seems the attitude of an environmentally conscious group.

Troxell used part of her letter to criticize a book written by a colleague of mine on the value of freedom, private choice and individual liberty. What my colleague has to do with Washington County farmland is unclear. But Troxell did note the CPWC "is on the public record" as supporting the recently passed Growth Management Act that will raise $400,000 a year for farmland preservation. And, she claims, the CPWC is interested in learning about the use of protective easements, development rights transfers (TDRs) and other programs intended to slow sprawl.

Protective easements, TDRs and similar programs restrict development on private property while reimbursing farmers and other rural landowners for the loss of their equity; hence the programs are both effective and fair. It is good to know the CPWC is interested in such programs. But unfortunately, the group far prefers uncompensated radical downzoning that does not reimburse farmers and other country people for the severe financial loss they will experience under the land-use controls.

The Herald has published several op-eds and letters from county farmers, rural landowners and myself on the effects of downzoning. We've explained and cited federal data indicating how it will wipe out more than $100 million (and probably closer to $200 million) in private equity, which will only hurt local farming and rural life. We've described how it will lessen affordable housing in the county. We've argued that such action is extremely unfair to the very people who give Washington County the rural atmosphere that the CPWC supposedly values. Repeatedly, we've called for compensation for the country people who will bear the financial burden of downzoning.

But the CPWC has scoffed at the calls for compensation and tries to hide the fact that others will bear those tremendous losses. Laird's op-ed said nothing about the unfairness and cost of downzoning's equity-grab, and Troxell said little more. The CPWC's Web site has an extensive listing of county commission minutes, but somehow is missing the meeting that CPWC members attended where I discussed the losses that downzoning will foist on farmers and other rural landholders. I suppose the CPWC can claim they advocate the $400,000 a year for easements (versus well more than $100 million in land value loss), along with their petition showing a few hundred signatures supporting the group's non-compensated downzoning plan. I supposed that's the CPWC's half-percent fairness idea, supported by a half-percent of the county.

The CPWC and county government apparently are uninterested in what federal data, economics and moral reasoning show about the need to compensate those who bear the heavy cost of downzoning. Fortunately, farmers, rural people, and all county residents who believe in fairness can stop the uncompensated downzoning plan and force the county to treat rural residents justly. Those who are interested in doing so should contact me at the e-mail below.

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