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Growth task force approved, controversy won't be discussed

December 10, 2003|by TARA REILLY

tarar@herald-mail.com

The Washington County Commissioners on Tuesday approved a task force to study the county's plan to control growth in rural areas, but the committee won't be discussing the part of the plan that's drawing the most controversy - the proposal to limit the number of homes allowed per acre.

The County Commissioners decided not to allow the yet-to-be-appointed, 13-member task force to make recommendations on whether rural areas should be rezoned to keep a handle on growth in those areas.

Commissioners President Gregory I. Snook cast the deciding vote, while Commissioners Vice President William J. Wivell and Commissioner John C. Munson said they wanted the task force to discuss density issues.

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"That's a mistake, Greg. That'll come back to haunt you," Munson told Snook.

Along with Snook, Commissioners James F. Kercheval and Doris J. Nipps opposed the task force making recommendations on the proposed rezoning densities.

Under the plan, one home would be allowed for every five acres of land with an agricultural zoning. For example, a property owner with 100 acres in an agricultural zone would be able to build 20 dwelling units. Currently, one home per acre is allowed in the agricultural zone.

The plan would allow one home per 20 acres in land zoned environmental conservation and one home per 30 acres in preservation zones. Both designations are new.

The goal of the rezoning is to limit growth in rural areas and direct it to designated growth areas. Much of the growth area is in and around Hagerstown.

The proposal is part of the county's Comprehensive Plan, which the commissioners adopted in August 2002.

Dozens of opponents have said during two public hearings on the issue that the proposed rezoning would decrease land values and "rob" landowners and farmers of their equity - money they were counting on for retirement purposes or if they hit rough financial times.

They asked the commissioners to create a task force to analyze the proposed rezonings and make recommendations.

Rather than dealing with the proposed densities, the task force will look at other issues the plan addresses, including the type of businesses allowed in rural areas and programs that would help property owners recover if the value of their land decreased.

One of the programs that will be discussed is the transfer of development rights, or TDRs.

TDRs allow landowners to establish development rights on their properties. Those rights are sold to developers, who then can transfer those rights to areas where major growth is allowed and build more units.

Nipps said she didn't support the task force looking at the proposed density changes because "I'd like it to be a very narrow focus."

Kercheval said the Washington County Planning Commission, of which he is a member, didn't want the task force studying densities, either. He said the Planning Commission felt that would be "rehashing" the proposed plan.

Wivell and Munson questioned the purpose of the task force if it wasn't going to study the rezonings - the public's main concern.

"I don't think we should restrict them from looking at density/equity issues," Wivell said.

"It appears to me that not too many people have paid enough attention to the (public)," Munson said of the commissioners. "It's not fair to the public."

The commissioners plan to discuss how they will appoint the task force next week.

Snook said citizens and several groups, including the League of Women Voters, the Greater Hagerstown Committee and the Hagerstown-Washington County Chamber of Commerce, asked to be represented on the task force.

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