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On county zoning plan, either way, citizens pay

September 23, 2004

On Monday, Sept. 27, the Washington County Commissioners will hold what could be the final hearing on a proposal to rezone 250,000 acres of rural county property.

Their aim is to tighten the original 1973 zoning ordinance, which allows one house per acre in agricultural zones and one per every three acres in conservation zones.

Whichever way the commissioners choose - to follow through with the plan to reduce the number of units allowed on large parcels, or to back off and let things stay as they are - one group or another will be angered.

We urge those on both sides of this debate to remember one essential truth: Either choice will cost the average taxpayer. It's up to citizens to choose now how they want their tax dollars spent.

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The original decision to allow more than 20 "principal permitted uses," including housing, in agricultural areas was a compromise to win farmers' support for the zoning ordinance. It allowed them to sell off lots along county roads while still preserving the main parts of their farms.

Now, land prices are soaring, in part because in nearby Loudoun County, Va., and Frederick County, so much has already been built or so many restrictions have been added that developers are moving toward less-costly areas.

If no restrictions are added here, residential development will overwhelm the ability of the schools, roads and fire and rescue services to handle it. Because residential development rarely pays for all of the services it requires, the rest of the taxpayers will have to chip in.

Another view is taken by the Washington County Rural Area Zoning Task Force, which says that such a rezoning will devalue rural land. The tax force recommends that landowners be compensated for that loss in value.

A third possibility comes from former County Commissioner John Schnebly, who advocates giving developers of large subdivisions long-term responsibility for things such as water supply and waste disposal. If developers had to budget for those items, he reasons, they might be less likely to blanket the county with new homes and then leave others to deal with the aftermath.

Whatever the commissioners decide, it will cost the average taxpayer money. There will be no "free lunch." And, if the choice is between accepting sprawl or compensating property owners who agree to preserve their lands, the choice seems clear: Pay the landowners.

The hearing will be held Monday at 7 p.m. in Courtroom No. 1 of the Washington County Circuit Courthouse.

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