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Snook's tiebreaker won't come back to 'haunt'

December 15, 2003|by TIM ROWLAND

We've waited for one of these moments for the better part of the year. The Washington County Commissioners are armed with five Republicans - two conservatives and two relative moderates, with the board's president somewhere in between.

Commission President Greg Snook has always tended to play his cards close to the vest, frequently commenting on touchy issues by saying he needs "more information" or that the topic requires "further study."

But it's hard to no-comment your way out of a roll call vote, so Snook's hand was called this week when the board split 2-2 over the most important land-use vote of the new century.

Over the ominous warnings of commissioners John Munson and Bill Wivell, Snook sided with moderates Dori Nipps and Jim Kercheval - and, this time at least, properly so.

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If nothing else, it was a courageous vote, since it will probably be dimly viewed by some of Snook's strongest constituencies.

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

No it won't. Nowhere as bad as tossing a cell phone, at any rate. More than any other Washington County politician save for State Sen. Don Munson, Snook has political capital to burn. And this is a big moment in his career if he's learned that he can draw down on some of that capital in exchange for doing the right thing.

Some farmers, many property owners and probably all developers - most of whom probably count themselves as Snook voters - aren't going to like this vote, which effectively locks in the Planning Commission's proposed limitations on housing density.

True, private property rights is an issue of passion in Washington County, inspiring quasi-patriotic feelings akin to gun ownership or right to life/choice.

The difference is that while everyone holds an often-strong view on abortion, not everyone owns dividable land. And many of the people who don't simply won't care much about this issue one way or the other.

If people voted based on the number of acres they controlled instead of as individuals, Snook's vote might cost him a bit, although still probably not as much as Munson appears to be implying.

Remember too, that in Washington County, for every three votes you lose on the landed gentry side, you probably pick up two on the preservationist side. This isn't gay marriage we're talking about, this is land use and both sides are well-represented.

The final reason why Snook's vote is defendable is because the majority's position itself is defendable, and emminently so.

The proposed comprehensive plan, some five years or more in the making, basically says you can only build 20 homes on 100 acres of rural land instead of 100. Presumably, those 20 would be clustered on maybe 10 half-acre lots, leaving 90 acres unspoiled in the name of beauty, heratige, rural tradition and all that jazz.

Is 20 houses on 100 acres too few? Too many? I don't have the faintest idea. On some of the county's best viewscapes, one house would be too many. On some, 200 would make little difference - except for the crowding of schools and roads that might occur.

The point is, lots of professional planners with lots of public input came up with 20 as a reasonable number. It's a number they believe the scenery, the schools and the roads can handle without asking the taxpayers to pony up for huge new public improvement projects.

You can understand Munson's position that this limits a property owner's ability to maximize the value of the land he owns. But just what the opposite of what he says is true: Had the commissioners thrown this issue back on the table it would have been a mistake that they would come to regret, because it would have created a holy mess and the potential for Civil War II.

The commissioners did create a task force to examine some of the comprehensive plan's more nettlesome, but smaller, problems and that was proper as well.

Few will argue that it isn't in need of some tweaking. In some instances, a farmer, for example, would be prohibited from opening a farmers' market. In others, it would be illegal for you to own a kennel, but would be OK to host a circus. Stuff like that.

The task force will also study the most important change that could be made to the plan, that being a way to compensate farmers who have lost land value (and potentially the ability to borrow against their land to keep farm operations running). And finally, through arbitrariness that comes with drawing lines, some land that's very suitible for growth has gotten mixed in with the cows. Contingencies should be made for flexibility in these cases.

But the big question, the density question, has been answered. As they say, we've been over it a million times - a million and one will only rearrange the subset of those with poked oxen. Snook is right, the commission as a whole is right and it's time to move the process along.

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