Planning commission seems uninterestedin making comprehensive plan better

November 30, 2003|by Thomas A. Firey

To the editor:

I attended the Nov. 17 Washington County Planning Commission meeting and found the experience very enlightening. I listened with interest as commission members summarized what had transpired at two public hearings concerning the proposed rural down-zoning and their reactions to those comments.

To their credit, most commission members noted inequities to small landowners as a problem with the proposed rezoning, and they favored some adjustments to address that unfairness. However, they did not make any such changes.

The commission members expressed skepticism toward the broader concern that down-zoning harms farm equity, and they appeared to have a very negative opinion of the county forming a task force to further study the rezoning.


I found many of the commission members' comments revealing, and believe they should be communicated to the public and commented upon.

Concerning the question of whether down-zoning produces equity loss, the members' comments included the following:

  • It is uncertain whether there is an equity loss.

  • Experts disagree on the effect of down-zoning on land values.

  • Down-zoning has no great impact on equity.

  • The development value of farmland has no effect on farmers' access to credit.

  • The planning commission has been advised that individual financial hardship should not be a consideration when making decisions.

Comments on forming a task force included the following:

  • A task force shouldn't be allowed to examine all parts of the rezoning plan, but instead its work should be tightly constrained in scope, membership size and time.

  • A task force will be a waste of time.

  • A task force is not necessary.

  • Calls for the task force are politically motivated.

  • People who want a task force are motivated solely by self interest.

The commission members were in general agreement that the rezoning plan should not be subject to any substantive reworking, but it may need to be "tweaked."

The commission members' comments on down-zoning's effect on farm equity need to be addressed. I know of six peer-reviewed academic studies that have appeared in prestigious academic journals that comment on the negative effect of down-zoning on farmland values.

Dartmouth professor William Fischel, considered to be the dean of American land-use economics, notes the negative effect of down-zoning in his book "The Economics of Zoning," which is considered the definitive work in the field. Two academic studies, one conducted by scholars at the University of Maryland and the other by scholars at Harvard University, note that, for many years, development potential is a major component to the value of farmland in Washington County.

Finally, two local certified appraisers with a combined 65 years of experience have testified repeatedly in public hearings before the planning commission that down-zoning devalues farmland.

I found the planning commissioners' cool reception to the idea of a task force incomprehensible. Their plan is arguably the most far-reaching, intrusive government policy ever proposed for our county. It has been met with a bombardment of opposition at public hearings the likes of which have never been seen in this county before.

Yet the members seem to dismiss that opposition because the rezoning was drawn up with pristine intentions over five years. But is that sufficient reason to not carefully analyze what they propose?

When intentions, regardless of how noble, are elevated above careful analysis, concerns over financial loss, dramatic public outcry, and individual freedom, I become very concerned.

I only hope that our County Commissioners will be open to fully evaluating the plan by which the planning commission members would orchestrate Washington County's future.

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