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Pass curbs on development, but compensate land owners

June 24, 2004

In January 1989, a task force appointed by the Washington County Commissioners presented a report that recommended against implementing impact fees without more study.

Back then, the arguments against fees included the possibility that they might not raise enough revenue, that they might adversely affect the availability of affordable housing or that they might even harm economic development.

The result? Although the state gave the county authority to levy the fees in 1990, it never happened, and the county has only recently implemented transfer and excise taxes that serve the same purpose. But for more than 10 years, funds that might have gone to school and road work weren't collected.

The Washington County Rural Area Zoning Task Force is making some of the same arguments in regard to the county's proposal to limit development in rural areas.

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The report quotes the new comprehensive plan's assertion that the projected growth rate is less than 1 percent a year, which it said should give the county plenty of leeway to keep pace with needed upgrades of roads, schools and services.

But to depend on that projection would mean ignoring what's happening in nearby Frederick County and Loudoun County, Va.. In the latter, The Washington Post recently reported that a new pro-growth county board is pushing development at top speed.

In Frederick County, rising impact fees and a shortage of municipal water have stopped large-scale development there. Put another way, sooner or later, a flood of development will head this way. Doesn't it make sense to fill to a few sandbags now?

At some point in the future, developers will seek land in areas where costs are lower and regulations less stringent. We believe that given the time it takes to get new rules passed, it makes more sense to get ready now rather than to try to play catch-up later.

We do agree with the task force's conclusion that there ought to be some compensation for the restriction of development rights, through either the state's Rural Legacy program or the county's agricultural preservation program.

Some will question why the general taxpayers should pay people who have inherited property or purchased it years ago to preserve it as open space.

The answer is that if much of the county's rural land is developed, taxpayers will pay anyway - for new roads, services and the expansion of schools.

Do citizens want to pay to preserve some of the open space that exists now, or pay the associated costs when that property is developed? Either way, there will be a cost to the general taxpayer, and anyone who says there won't be is wrong.

Two additional thoughts: During the hearings on the comprehensive plan, we heard from many owners of small tracts of five or 10 acres who have been "banking" that land in case of financial emergencies or so children and grandchildren could have a housing lot. There should be a special-exception process to take care of those needs.

Finally, the late Keller Nigh, chairman of that impact-fee study committee, told the commissioners that if they did nothing, the county's future wouldn't be shaped by its people, but by developers who may or may not be local residents.

This is the time for county residents to express their views and to make a choice, and not to be deterred by those who say that only those who own land have a right to make those decisions.

We certainly recognize that landowners have rights, but as long as some of the costs of development are spread among all taxpayers, all should have a voice. We advise them to speak up now.

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