Washington Co. changed forever during our watch

September 26, 2004|by Martin E. Brubaker

Washington County is blessed with a unique character. We are fortunate to live in a great valley, bordered by South Mountain to the east and Appalachian foothills to the west, with the beginning of the Blue Ridge rising to the South.

For 228 years since its founding, Washington County has retained the same basic pattern of human settlement - a wide expanse of prosperous agricultural land and small towns across the valley, spanned by a more thickly settled central area centered on the valley pike, now with rail and interstate successors. Within this historic corridor, the county seat and largest municipality continues to be Elizabeth/Hagerstown.

Over the years we have inherited a variety of attractive structures in town and country from previous generations.

Decisions to be finalized by the Board of County Commissioners in October will change forever the nature of this pattern. With the possible exception of a Rural Legacy Area consisting of Pleasant Valley and the area around Antietam National Battlefield, meaningful farming will cease and this entire valley of prime farmland, from mountain to mountain, will become one more sprawling suburb of Baltimore and Washington.


This will happen rapidly, over the next generation or two. It was not inevitable. But I don't think the vast majority of Washington County citizens, at whatever level of education and income, whether pro-growth or anti-development, understand that a total transformation is under way right now and that there were other choices - middle-ground options that would allow growth for future generations without extinguishing a significant portion of our economy and heritage.

Since 2000, we have been approving housing permits at a rate sufficient to create another Hagerstown in 15 years, during a county moratorium on large housing developments that will be lifted next month. The pending rural land use decisions appear to be locked in at this point and will be hard to overcome in the future. They will affect the future of this county far more than the hospital location, runway extension, Fort Ritchie, Wal-Mart, billboards or other recent hot topics.

The comprehensive plan for Washington County, adopted in 2002, seems pretty logical as viewed on a map - it appears to reinforce the historical development pattern that has established our current surroundings and lifestyles, while still allowing for reasonable expansion. The plan's failure occurs in converting plain words on the map into reality.

The vast area labeled "agriculture," from Boonsboro to Pennsylvania, from Smithsburg to Clear Spring - mountain to mountain, will be zoned in a manner that on the ground will simply produce one- to five-acre suburban housing with well and septic. We are not discussing a rezoning to preserve the rural areas, but rather one that creates fewer suburban lots.

Despite the fact that strong development pressures are here already, tough measures necessary to preserve agriculture will not be put into place. Part of the reason will be evident when the commissioners turn their attention to the plan's Urban Growth Area from Williamsport through Hagerstown/Funkstown to the Maugansville/airport area.

Under current circumstances, it is unlikely that elected officials will feel able to zone and provide public facilities at levels the word "urban" anticipates, and the county needs, if it is to accommodate future generations with jobs and housing.

On its face, the comprehensive plan involves a trade off. Growth would be channeled into areas where it can be well served by water, sewer, transportation and other facilities.

This is where the tax base that supports the whole county and pays for public facilities and services can be enhanced. Quantities of affordable housing are best established in urban areas of higher density, not on lots of an acre or more in the countryside. But on a case-by-case basis, well meaning citizen activists often stand in the way of a true Urban Growth Area.

In the meantime, as a general rule, the state will not supply matching funds for projects for low-density residential areas. When the wells and septic tanks fail, or an intersection needs improvement, guess who picks up the tab. Trying to accommodate both rural property owners and "close the door behind us" homeowners will result in paralysis and ultimately sprawl claiming the whole valley.

The County Commissioners are aware of these contradictions. If they talk to elected officials in other jurisdictions or seek the advice of professionals with no ax to grind, they know what is happening here.

The issues facing our county are not new; they've occurred over and over again in the counties between here and the Chesapeake Bay. A veritable Chinese menu of solutions was developed over the past 50 years as these counties struggled to cope with growth pressures. We could learn from mistakes already made. Instead, we are about to repeat them.

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