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Don't tie task force's hands

December 11, 2003

Discussing Washington County's Comprehensive Plan without talking about zoning makes about as much sense as looking at legalizing slot machines without mentioning horse tracks. For once, County Commissioner John Munson is correct: This is a decision that will come back to haunt the county board.

After a couple of public hearings on the proposed plan, the commissioners came under much citizen pressure to have a task force reconsider the plan.

Many who spoke against the plan were not developers, but citizens who own 10 or 20 acres and who said they had planned to give building lots to children, or, if necessary, sell parcels to pay medical bills.

The idea of a task force makes sense, if only because after more than two years of preparation, there is still much misunderstanding about what the zoning that backs up the new plan would require.

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For example, although the plan would allow only one home for every five acres in the agricultural zone, a person who owned 100 acres would not have to sell 20 five-acre lots.

Instead, the plan says that person could sell 20 one-acre lots, leaving the remaining 80 acres for farming or open space. If the task force could communicate that fact to those citizens who now believe that only those who can afford a five-acre lot can build in a rural area, that would be quite a public service.

Del. Chris Shank, R-Washington, had been working on a plan that would compensate landowners for lost equity with a bond issue that would cost the county about $2 million a year. But there hasn't been much talk about that recently.

Here's the question the commissioners should allow the task force to explore: Could small property owners - of less than 20 acres - be allowed to sell off a few lots without promoting unacceptable sprawl development?

That's an important question, not only for the owners, but the general county taxpayers. Gov. Robert Ehrlich has not, as expected, dismantled his predecessor's "Smart Growth" program. That's because he knows the state can't afford to pay for water, sewer and school construction that results from sprawl development. And if the state doesn't pay, then all local taxpayers will get the bill.

Though most might want to leave things as they are, the reality is that some restrictions must be enacted. The task force should be allowed to look at how much small owners must be pinched to accomplish that.

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