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A compromise over comp plan ultimately benefits both sides

October 05, 2003|by

Developers who bristle at tighter zoning regulations are obviously in the business of bringing more, generally richer, people into the county. The paradox, and it's not lost on builders, is that the people they are bringing in almost universally support tighter zoning regulations.

The more people developers bring into the county, the greater the political opposition to development.

Of course preservationists face the same quandary. The new households they would restrict are nevertheless likely to become their political allies in the future.

Developers want to strike while they still have the political oomph, and they are pressuring the Washington County Commissioners to vote down new, more restrictive zoning plans that have been five years in the making.

At least, they want the new comprehensive plan put to a countywide referendum, where it would almost certainly be voted down by a population that still believes that private property is, well, private property and should not be fettered by government regulation.

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The problem is that under state law, a county commission's action cannot be taken to referendum. It could under home rule, but the second paradox is that people who despise zoning also tend to despise charter government - both falling under the understandable paradigm of "more government is bad government."

What zoning opponents can do is petition the state legislative delegation to pass a law that would mandate a county vote on the plan.

That happened in Frederick. The delegation introduced a referendum bill and it passed both houses unanimously, but was subsequently vetoed by then-Gov. Parris Glendening. Developers believe, probably correctly, that Gov. Robert Ehrlich would not be so disposed to cross a county that he won handily in the last election.

That puts the Washington County delegation squarely on the hot seat, where it would be intensely lobbied by both sides to introduce, or not introduce, a bill that would effectively kill the new comprehensive plan.

Sensing a train wreck, Del. Chris Shank has stepped up to try to settle the dispute before it comes to such an ugly, polarizing head.

Shank is attempting to get both sides to sign off on a "social compact" (both sides were to vote on it late this week, but not before our Sunday deadline) that would appoint a task force comprised of all interested parties that would tweak the county's plan to protect open lands, while simultaneously protecting the financial security of the people who own those open lands.

"We can't give (farmers) everything they want, but we can do our best to make them whole," Shank said. To do this, he's drawn up a four-part plan to ensure that farmland would not lose its value if tighter zoning prevents farmers from selling as many building lots.

Grossly simplified, the two most intriguing points would:

1. Allow development rights to be effectively bought and sold as a commodity. To build a house on an acre in a growth area, a developer would have to buy an acre's worth of "development rights" from a farmer. That farmer's acre would then be restricted from future development. The farmer would be compensated for his land, while the homebuyer (to whom the cost of the development right would undoubtedly be passed) would be compensated in the sense that the beauty of his home county would be protected.

2. Long-term bonds would be sold, with proceeds going to farmers who protected their land. An added value for the farmers is that this revenue would not be subjected to the high capital gains taxes they would have to pay if selling to a developer.

If developers and landowners were to give in these respects, Shank believes the preservationists should have to give as well, most importantly by allowing small landowners to split off lots for their children without undue restriction.

Both sides would do well to buy into this compromise, because to take a hard line is a considerable gamble that, long-term, could destroy their own interests.

If preservationists do not give, the builders just might have the political and financial power to strong-arm the plan to referendum and subsequently to its total defeat. Preservationists disgruntled with an only moderately restrictive plan should consider what will happen if we have no plan at all.

On the other hand, a hard-line charge by builders to defeat the plan will rapidly erode the political advantages they now enjoy. If they have a 60-40 advantage at the polls today, I have no doubt that five years of sloppy, haphazard growth will bring this number to 50-50. Then, they might find themselves staring at another, far more severe comprehensive plan with no political support to defeat it. Further, if the county's trashed, people will no longer want to move (and build) here, since our "rural charms" will be no more.

Some, of course, will not look beyond the immediate future. "I was told about an older gentleman who said he didn't care, he wasn't going to be here in 20 years," Shank said. "Well hopefully I'll be here in 20 years, and so will my wife and son."

And anyone with a long-term eye to our rural health and quality of life should think carefully about these words and this plan.

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