A possible city/hospital settlement and a new wrinkle on zoning issue

October 22, 2003|by BOB MAGINNIS

Wouldn't it be nice if the Hagerstown city government and the Washington County Hospital could agree on a plan to allow the hospital to move to the Robinwood area without hurting the city in the process?

Well, after some discussion with The Herald-Mail's Editorial Page Advisory Committee, I believe I have an idea that's worth exploring. It's a little bit complicated, so please bear with me.

It came when the group started talking about a statement in my Sept. 28 column that came from Dave Shindle, the city's water and sewer manager.

Shindle told me that one problem with the move would be that the hospital's sewer allocation is not transferable from one site to another.


And Shindle said that because there's only so much sewer capacity reserved for property outside the city limits, there isn't enough left to serve a new hospital at Robinwood.

But what if the new site were annexed into the city? I asked Shindle that this week and he said if that happened, then there'd be adequate sewer capacity.

But because the hospital is a nonprofit organization, the city would be taking on the responsibility of serving a large new facility without getting any tax revenue. The council, already concerned about the costs of such a move, would be unlikely to do the hospital this great favor for no gain.

But what if the city also annexed the Robinwood Medical Center, a for-profit arm of the Washington County Health System? The hospital would get sewer service, the city would get tax revenue and all would be right with the world.

The one hitch with this plan is that some of the offices at Robinwood are condominiums, owned by the doctors who practice there. Maryland law allows those who oppose an annexation to petition it to referendum. And if there are fewer than 20 people residing in the area to be annexed, property owners may sign petitions and participate in a referendum on the proposed annexation.

Could the hospital get sewer service any other way? Perhaps by persuading the county's General Assembly delegation to back a bill forcing the city to provide it. But the session doesn't even start until next January, which would put things on hold until the legislature adjourns in April 2004.

An agreement makes more sense than prolonging the fight, providing that the doctors who want a new facility would agree to pay city property taxes as the price for getting one.

For everyone who assumed that Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich would kill Parris Glendening's "Smart Growth" land-use program and usher in an era of anything-goes development, think again. Ehrlich has decided that he'll change Smart Growth, but not end it.

In the Oct. 11 issue of the Baltimore Sun, State Planning Secretary Audrey Scott denied that the state would allow local officials to use state resources to foster sprawl.

Scott said the state's sticking to its policy of committing to allocate state funds only to "priority funding areas" near urban centers. Her comments came in a story about how Ehrlich's revisions to Glendening's plan had won praise from Gerrit Knapp, director for the National Center for Smart Growth and Education.

For those who hoped it would be otherwise, it was a nice fantasy while it lasted, but Ehrlich knows that the state can't afford to fund sprawl development. Those communities that encourage it will have to pay the full freight themselves.

The first citizen to testify at the Sept. 15 hearing on Washington County's revised Comprehensive Plan was Tom Berry, a former member of the Washington County School Board. In his testimony, Berry commented on a statement frequently made in editorials on this page: If you say "no" to one thing, you have to say "yes" to something else.

Not in this case, Berry said, because the new zoning proposal is as evil as burglary and those who resist have no obligation to offer an alternative. Berry later repeated the same argument in a letter to the editor published on Oct. 15.

I like Berry, but as a former School Board member, he has to know that the consequence of unrestrained residential development will be overcrowded schools, a problem which every taxpayer will be asked to help fix. Shouldn't those who'll have to pay for development have a voice?

And does Berry really want to let every politician who expresses concern and exclaims that "Something must be done!" get away with not saying what that something should be?

There is a compromise to be found for land use in Washington County, but it won't be easily reached if some of those involved refuse to discuss the alternatives.

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