Letters to the editor

August 23, 2003

Why downzoning is unfair to local property owners

To the editor:

In the early 1980s, my wife and I bought nine acres of farmland near Blairs Valley from my aunt and uncle, and we built our home there. The land has been in my family since the 1840s.

When we bought the property, it was zoned Agricultural, and county regulations allowed us to build a house on each suitable acre of ground if we chose to. Although we had no interest in developing our ground (other than perhaps giving building lots to our children), we believed Washington County would stand by the rules it had in place and our property would maintain its value.

Over the years, we added about 12 adjacent acres to our property. Conservation zoning for the new ground then allowed three-acre building lots on suitable portions of the land.


Last year, when descriptions of the proposed rezoning started appearing in The Morning Herald, it became clear that our property - along with 80 percent of the county - was earmarked by Washington County government for drastic downzoning. It appeared that the draft plan would allow one home per five acres on our original parcel, and our added acreage would be permitted only one home per 20 acres.

The picture became even bleaker when I attended a public information workshop on the rezoning in July. There, county planning staff informed me that even my former farmland was to be zoned Environmental Conservation, which meant that our house would be the only house ever allowed on our total acreage. The staff were very helpful and advised me to submit a form requesting that my land be rezoned to a one lot per five acre basis.

If I understand the rezoning plan correctly, the county is to be dominated by three zones: Agricultural, that would require five acres for a new home; Environmental Conservation, that would require 20 acres and Preservation, that would require 30 acres. If that is adopted with no compensation to rural landowners or other changes, the equity of farmers and other rural landowners will collapse. But developers will still buy and develop farms as long as there's a market for homes on large lots. And that market exists because there are plenty of people in the metropolitan area to the east who will sell their expensive properties and move to Washington County for better land value.

When children of current county residents plan their first homes, they will have the following choices: Rent or buy an expensive house in the county's designated growth areas, buy an expensive large lot elsewhere in the county or move out of the county to buy a less expensive lot.

I have no doubt the planning staff did a lot of careful work in preparing the proposed rezoning and tried to be consistent with guidelines set down by former Gov. Glendening's administration. I don't question the motives of the County Commissioners and groups that have supported the rezoning.

But I do question how anyone can think that such a drastic change without compensation is fair and equitable to farmers and other rural landowners.

At the rezoning workshop, I ran into my friend Gerry Ditto, a Dry Run farmer I've known for years. Gerry told me about a new group, the Citizens to Protect Rights, that has formed to challenge the downzoning. I've joined the group because I think the zoning plan needs considerable improvement. I'm willing to work with anyone to bring about that improvement.

It's been claimed that the farmers and other rural landowners who have joined CPR only care about money. My financial stake in this is "small potatoes" compared to that of other rural land owners. I, and the other CPR members that I know, place great value in the freedom to make choices in wise use of private property, and we do not believe that anyone in government will be a better steward for our land.

Chuck Ernst
Blairs Valley

(Editor:s note:Chuck Ernst was recently appointed chairman of the Citizens to Protect Rights ( A county native, he is the former dean of the Advanced Technology Center at what is now Hagerstown Community College and former president/CEO of Duvinage Corp.)

Landowners don't have unrestricted right to develop

To the editor:

In his letter of Aug. 21, "Preventing a wrong is justification enough," Thomas E. Fiery asserts that Washington County's proposed comprehensive plan is "a bald seizure of control over private property."

Welcome the real world, Mr. Firey. All zoning does that, in a limited sense, to all property owners. The unrestricted right to use your land implies the right to pollute or destroy other peoples' drinking water and create additional traffic, financial and environmental burdens on your neighbors.

To prevent that sort of "unfairness and injustice" as Mr. Firey terms it, the county officials have indeed developed a fair, equitable and just policy. The county government needs to pass the new comprehensive plan now, and not be cowed by Mr. Firey's appeal to return to the Nineteenth Century.

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