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All sides in land-use scrap have good points, but must realize need for compromise

September 07, 2003|by TIM ROWLAND

Elsewhere in this section, you will find a lot of words expended on the topic of land use. It will appear at first blush to be a scrap between preservationists and farmers, although it is more accurately framed as a fight between preservationists and developers with farmers caught in the middle.

The group known as Citizens to Protect Rights sells itself as primarily a farm-based organization, and it does have some strong farming elements. But CPR made a huge tactical blunder at a recent farm bureau meeting by bragging about it's deep financial pockets (i.e., builders), its support from Frederick County (i.e. developers who have used up the land there and are eying points west) and the lawyers and powerful developers who were prepared to come to the farmers' "rescue."

Some farmers welcome that assistance, some don't.

The group known as Citizens for the Protection of Washington County also wants to be known as the farmers' friend, but here again, motivation has become an issue.

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CPWC wants to protect the open lands and rural character of Washington County. In this respect they are on the same page with many farmers. Most farmers want to keep farming, and it's obviously in CPWS' interest for them to keep farming too.

But CPWC strongly supports "downzoning" (or fewer houses per rural acre) and that decreases the value of the farmers' land because it can't be divided into as many salable lots. Some farmers believe they are being used by CPWC, which wants their land to remain in the services of agriculture, but has not been aggressively finding ways to pay farmers for the value they will lose through downzoning - keeping in mind that often a farmer's land is his retirement savings account.

It's easy but rather pointless to place a black hat on the developers. They are meeting a demand for more homes, and as long as there is demand profiteers will try to meet it, and that's the way a free-market system is supposed to work.

More troublesome is the builders, through CPR, pressuring for an 11th hour derailment of the county's proposed comprehensive plan, a document which took years and much heartache to construct.

Make no mistake, the comprehensive plan is far less strict than CPWC wanted. And it is more strict than some farmers and probably all builders wanted. It is a compromise. To throw it on the scrap heap at this point and starting over would be no more fair than suddenly enacting a moratorium on all county development to allow CPWC to find ways to make the plan tighter still.

Most people want the beauty of Washington County preserved. And most people believe it is unfair for the government to effectively step in and seize, say, 20 percent of a man's assets.

I believe some in CPWC are too cavalier when they say "property is restricted all the time in this country - deal with it." But there is such a thing as the public good, and persons' private interests are often compromised in achieving it. A businessman could make more money if his company could dump its sludge straight into the creek, but the public good dictates he do otherwise.

In this land of "purple mountain majesty," a greenspace is a public good. It relieves stress, reduces carbon dioxide and makes you happier about being alive.

And as growth clogs counties to the east, it is also one of our biggest economic assets. An attractive county is more likely to win the hearts and dollars of executives seeking a place to do business. And those who promoted telecommuting a decade ago only failed because they were ahead of their time.

With that in mind, it should be pointed out that we will require some rural housing. We should not categorically deny people the affordable chance to live in the country, tend a small garden, have a couple of fruit trees and enjoy the opportunity to ride their bicycles right out the front door without having to haul it through the suburbs to a rail-trail.

Sentencing people to be warehoused Frederick-style in row upon row of cookie-cutter townhomes on the fringe of the city - with no other option - is efficient, but to me, that isn't freedom.

With that in mind, there should be a recognition that not every single vista in the county can be saved, nor should they. Small, rural enclaves of housing, properly screened and tastefully landscaped, are not death.

Preservationists might do well to choose their battles, target the county's best spots and hit hard if they are encroached upon. A knee-jerk opposition to every single plat will cost the group its effectiveness. And that hurts us all, since we count on groups like CPWC to defend much or our rural charm.

Meantime, while it is unfair for CPWC to paint CPR as a primarily a group of Frederick predator-builders, it is equally unfair for CPR to go after CPWC as a selfish group with shrouded motives and sinister intents - deep-down caring only about the land, not the men and women who farm it.

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