Zoning fight reveals clash of philosophies

November 03, 2003|by Tom Firey

For nearly two years now, Washington County has been entangled in controversy over a proposed radical rewriting of its zoning ordinance. The controversy stems from the proposal's stipulation that, for more than 80 percent of the county, the average allowable density for new construction would be one house per 17.6 acres.

The disagreement has routinely been framed as one of rural landowners vs. preservations, taxpayers vs. developers, or civic planning vs. laissez faire.

But none of those dichotomies seem right - several preservationists have come to appreciate landowners' equity concerns while landowners share preservations' worries about the effects and aesthetics of sprawl; a number of developers accept the wisdom of appropriate impact fees while taxpayers recognize that there are important benefits from growth; and most people in the county agree that appropriate infrastructure planning is both necessary and appropriate so long as the resulting land market remains flexible and dynamic.


Given that synergy, there is opportunity to negotiate a resolution to the controversy. So why hasn't it happened?

That question can be answered by the Sept. 28 Herald-Mail op-ed by Sheldon Cheney of Keedysville. Cheney's piece perfectly illustrates the ideology that lies at the heart of the rezoning controversy - the ideology that rights and liberties are gifts of government that can be granted and extinguished at will.

It is the reaction to that ideology - not some desire for sprawl or belittlement of the value of civil planning - that has produced the hostile opposition to the downzoning.

According to Cheney, "If the county permits you to develop the land, the county gives you a gift of considerable value, something you did not have before, and you should be willing to share your windfall with the county and its residents. If the county denies you the right to develop, you have lost nothing."

That ideology departs dramatically from the American philosophy that the ability to use one's property responsibly is, like all individual rights, inalienable and not a privilege that government can award to some and deny to others.

Government's duty is to protect those inalienable rights, while the people are the ones who hold full moral authority to permit or deny the actions of government. The benefits that result from human activities are thus the rewards of providence and the work of human minds and hands, not the gifts of government.

Washington County's history shows a deep reverence for that American philosophy - a reverence that extends to land-use planning. When the Board of Commissioners enacted countywide zoning in 1973, rural residents forced the politicians to compromise and adopt an ordinance that kept those rights generally intact.

But Cheney wants the commissioners to retract that compromise and abandon the commitment to protecting rural residents' rights. He dismisses the financial harm that would result as akin to a person taking a financial loss on an investment - but at least investments are subject to breach of contract laws. Cheney apparently believes that government is free to breach its moral obligations and convert a guaranteed right to a discriminately awarded privilege.

Unfortunately, it seems he is not the only adherent to that ideology. A county commissioner was recently overheard dismissing as "greed" farmers and rural landowners' demand that the county stand by its 1973 compromise and respect people's property rights. Apparently, the commissioner shares the belief that the ability to use one's property responsibly is a privilege that can be awarded and withdrawn by government, not a right that government is obligated to protect.

Cheney's op-ed contains many other objectionable claims. He wrongly asserts that property values reflect only their current use, when land prices reflect both current use and potential alternative uses. He claims that only "speculators" would be hurt by downzoning because they "paid more than what the land was worth," but anyone who purchased rural land at market prices would be financially harmed.

He dismisses downzoning's effect on affordable housing, when the connection between zoning and soaring rent and house prices has been known for decades and has become a concern of the courts as evidenced by the Mount Laurel (N.J.) decision.

Cheney's erroneous claims are troubling; some county officials' acceptance of similar falsehoods is even more frightening. But what is downright chilling is Cheney's desire for Washington County to abandon its American philosophy that reveres individual rights, good-faith agreements and a dynamic marketplace. In its place, he wants us to accept that government has moral authority to hand out privileges and wealth to the politically favored while it represses and economically restrains the rest of the people - the ideology that lies at the heart of fascism and Marxism.

As county residents contemplate the preservation of Washington County's heritage, they must keep in mind that that heritage is rooted not in the county's woodlands and farms, but in its political philosophy.

If Washington County is to be protected, that philosophy must be affirmed, not abandoned. We will soon learn if Washington County's commissioners respect that philosophy or embrace Cheney's ideology.

Tom Firey is an editor for Cato in Washington, D.C.

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