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To reach a compromise on Comp Plan, everyone needs to agree on a few things

October 12, 2003|by BOB MAGINNIS

As editorial page editor of The Herald-Mail newspapers. one of my duties is reading reader letters, usually several times before they're published.

Based on that scrutiny, I must say that many of those written about the proposed revision of the Washington county's Comprehensive Plan have one disturbing thing in common - they assume that those on the other side of the issue are proposing to do unspeakably evil things of one sort or another. Few concede that folks on the other side may have arguments that makesome sense.

This is what some of us call the "fire alarm" approach. Fearing that a reasoned argument won't be heard, they pull out all the stops in hopes that the loudest voice will prevail.

But we do all have to live together, because this matter will be settled one way or another, probably with a compromise of some sort. To his credit, Del. Chris Shank has proposed a solution and is working on getting the parties together on it.

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That will be easier if everyone can agree on a few items. I suggest those things should include the following:

- Washington County's farm community has played by the rules, in regard to zoning, for 30 years.

If you look at the existing zoning ordinance, there are 26 "principal permitted uses" for agricultural land. If farmers' only interest was making the maximum amount of bucks as quickly as possible, there are plenty of legal ways to do that and they'd have sold out a long time ago.

Farming is not a particularly lucrative profession and many farmers are reaching retirement age. Is it fair to change the rules now without some compensation?

If you have a 401K plan and watched its value shrink as a result of some shenanigans by Wall Street insiders, you probably felt that you'd been robbed. Some farmers look at this proposal and feel the same way.

The same goes for owners of smaller tracts who kept them with an eye toward giving children building lots or as a hedge against old age or illness.

- The pro-zoning forces are right when they say that there's a need for some changes now.

For many years, Washington County grew very slowly. That's about to change, because of growth-control measures enacted in neighboring jurisdictions like Frederick County and Loudoun County, Va.

Too much residential development occurring too quickly will overwhelm schools that are at capacity now. The only cure for that will be raising everybody's taxes, because, as I noted in a recent column, residential development doesn't generate enough money to pay for services the new residents require.

School board officials recently requested the authority to issue millions of dollars worth of new bonds to cover the cost of renovation and new construction. If just 10 farms were developed with 100 lots apiece, they'd have to hold classes in tents on the schools' front lawns.

The bottom line: Why should residents who don't profit from a development have to deal with the resulting inconvenience and worse, pay a significant part of the cost of servicing it?

- There is a compromise that will work.

Del. Shank's proposal would have the county appoint a task force to study the situation, with two key possibilities:

- Transferable development rights, which would allow developers who want greater density in one place to buy a TDR, as they're called, from a farmer for use somewhere else.

- Issuance of long-term bonds to fund farmland preservation easements. As noted last week by Herald-Mail columnist Tim Rowland, this would exempt farmers from the capital gains tax they would pay if they sold to developers.

John Schnebly, a former county commissioner, has another idea - making developers take a long-term interest in running their developments, by installing, maintaining and operating community water and sewer systems, for example.

Neither deals with the issue of those who own 20 or 30 acres and want to develop a few lots. I predict the county commissioners will bend on this issue, allowing a certain number of lots to be sold off, though perhaps not all at once.

Even that wouldn't be catastrophic because some of those people who want to keep the right to do that view that ability as a last resort.

They'll sell if they have to, but many, I'd guess, hope they don't have to. No one knows what a new neighbor will be like, but if you sell them a lot and their children decide they want to race motorcycles, there's not much you can do about it.

- If farmland is preserved, Washington County residents will eventually see a new kind of farm operation emerge.

If farms are sold as farms, as opposed to as potential development property, the next operator will have to do whatever is necessary to make a profit.

That will include trying different crops, running a bed-and-breakfast on the side and perhaps even processing food like dairy products on site.

It can happen, if everyone concerned realizes that nobody will get everything they want, but by compromising everyone can get an agreement they can live with.

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