Small property owners need a break in new zoning plan

December 17, 2003|by BOB MAGINNIS

About 25 years ago my wife and I bought a house on two acres in the Smithsburg area. It was by far the best thing we had seen in our price range, so we didn't think about schools or how well the septic system worked or the fact that the drinking and wash water came from a cistern fed by rain gutters.

We'd lived in an apartment for about a year before we moved and I grew up in a home where our neighbors' dwellings were less than 20 yards away. When the neighbor's dogs yapped, you listened, like it or not. And when someone decided to build a hot rod, evaluating the rumble of the muffler became your hobby, too.

That's why we wanted to live in the country. Not because we're anti-social, but because there is something good about sitting outside and watching the birds and listening to their songs without the hum of steady traffic.


Before we leave for work in the morning, I take a flashlight and walk our old hound dog under the stars, which are brighter because there are no city lights. Sometimes we even surprise the odd rabbit or a deer which has taken refuge in the patch of brush in the rear of our property.

All this comes with a cost that people in the city don't face. When stuff from the septic tank bubbled up out of the ground, we had it re-dug, for about $5,000. When we wanted to refinance the house, the bank wouldn't agree unless we had a well put in, for another couple of thousand bucks. When the well pump failed during the drought we had the summer before last, the city didn't come to fix it, but a service guy we paid ourselves, so glad that it was the pump and not the well gone dry.

Maybe these experiences are what make me sympathize with all those Washington County residents who have held on to their country property for the last 25 years, loving where they live, but knowing that unlike the stock market or their 401k's, land is something that hasn't lost its value since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

A lot of those people came to the recent hearings on the proposed revisions to the Washington County Comprehensive Plan. They talked about how their 15 or 20 acres would be too small to subdivide under the new zoning, prohibiting them from giving a lot to a child or a grandchild or selling one off, should a medical problem or other emergency make that necessary.

They did not fit the profile of land developers or speculators. No diamond pinky rings or $500 suits and no consultants in tow. These were people who were not sure, for the most part, what they wanted to say, except that they wanted to be left alone on their land.

They've got a strong argument. For 30 years, since the enactment of the first local zoning ordinance, they've played by the rules as they were written. Occasionally someone violated the law by storing a couple thousand used tires or opening an illegal dump, but that's been the exception rather than the rule.

Now the rules are about to change, in a way that will make it more difficult for those small property owners to divide off a chunk of their ground. Not that most want to, but making it illegal will be a change that could cost the owner money, or make it impossible for junior to live near mom and dad.

The bigger developments can be handled through the sort of measures suggested by former County Commissioner John Schnebly. The short version of his plan would make the person who developed 100 lots responsible over the long term for things like adequate water and sewage disposal on the site.

But even the little guys know things have to change. The state will no longer help pay for schools, roads and sewer pipes to support large-scale rural development. If existing taxpayers aren't going to get socked for it, development must be restricted somehow.

That said, the small property owners ought to get a break. If I were the zoning czar, I'd let them subdivide one lot off as a gift to a family member and another one or two if they could make the case that it was an emergency. In both cases, it would be a special exemption that could be reviewed by the zoning appeals board.

None of this, except the idea of free lots for family members, addresses the idea of affordable housing. My idea would be to have government provide incentives for builders who would erect a development of small and simple starter homes.

Deed restrictions would prevent owners from adding on, so that when they outgrew the house, they'd move on, freeing the dwelling for the next newlywed couple or a pair of empty nesters looking for something smaller.

Would there be problems with such a plan? Yes, even with restrictions on add-ons, the homes would increase in price over time, but probably less so than other, more elaborate structures.

Is there a better way to do this? Maybe, but the Washington County Commissioners' decision to restrict what a study panel can look at might prevent it from being discovered. I might be wrong about everything else, but I know the idea of muzzling interested citizens will never be the right thing to do.

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