Where the name of the game is making equal numbers of people mad

October 03, 2004|by TIM ROWLAND

Washington County's rezoning angst, in its simplest form, boils down to two questions:

As a preservationist, how much right do I have to control another man's property?

As a land-rights proponent, how much right do I have to develop unfettered, regardless of how much that development may degrade the community as a whole?

The answer to both of these questions is the same.


In my opinion, the "benefit of the doubt" should always rest with the landowner, because the concept of private property is a fundamental pillar that helps hold up our nation, our society and our economy as we know it.

If you own property, you have the right to expect the government will keep its nose out of the way you ch0ose to use it unless there is due process, or in other words, a darn good reason.


Property ownership is a right, but as with all rights, it is not an unlimited right. Property ownership has benefits, but with those benefits comes responsibility. A right used irresponsibly against society as a whole ceases to be a right.

To use an extreme example, the Constitution guarantees the right to own a gun, but with gun ownership comes the burden of responsibility. Ownership does not entitle you to use it against society as a whole.

Obviously, no one has ever stuck up a liquor store with an acre of land. But there are parallels, most notable that you can't put your land to some obnoxious use that deprives your neighbor the right to enjoy his own private property. So your neighbor has some small semblance of control over your land, even though he doesn't own it.

By extension, society as a whole has some degree of control over your land too, to the extent that it affects others. That control goes beyond salvage yards and strip mines. When a landowner profits from the sale of 10 housing lots, he is in essence being subsidized by the rest of the county's taxpayers, who must help pay for the schools and services that new growth requires.

Finally, Washington County is our home, and there is some obligation on the part of government to make our home look "presentable." A neat and clean county is worth more to everyone who lives there than one that has become junked up with thoughtless development.

No one benefits more from this presentation than the landowners themselves; their property, in a nice frame, is going to be more valuable than one edged in tattered canvas. But even city apartment dwellers who pay taxes have some right to a decent countryside as well, one in which they can escape for a while to ride bikes, fish, or simply enjoy a refreshing view.

In total, these are the boundary lines in which the county government must operate - and must be careful not to cross. No zoning law, for example, should ever prevent parents from parceling off some of their land for their kids. Sometimes times get tight - in a pinch, should a man ever be faced with the chance that he could lose his home and his entire 10 acres because he is prohibited from selling off just one of those acres?

Planners and commissioners should be aware of the laws of unintended consequence. One or two lot sales might see a farmer through a drought. Without those sales, he may have to sell the entire farm to a developer.

And finally from a landowner's standpoint, property values are, and should be, an overriding concern. For some people, their land is their bank account. Ripping away 20 percent of their land value would be tantamount to going into a person's personal, $10,000 savings account and claiming $2,000 of it for the "greater good."

Both sides have overstated the value issue. No matter how many government experts and reports the county may produce, it cannot reasonably claim that some equity is not lost through downzoning.

Conversely, and coming from a person who has recently conducted a property search in a region with wildly differing degrees of land control and land quality, I see little reason for landowners to be terrified.

The phenomenon I witnessed over and over, was that an acre of ground in an area with twice the restrictions cost twice as much. It was simple supply and demand - limit the supply, (not to mention the desirability) and up goes the cost.

For a close-to-home example, go to Berkeley County, W.Va. - which has next to no zoning at all - and drive on W.Va. 9 from Hedgesville to Martinsburg. Then drive on Md. 65 from Sharpsburg to Hagerstown. Think about how much you would be willing to pay for an acre of land along W.Va. 9 Compared to Md. 65.

Striking a balance and getting it right is a huge responsibility for the County Commissioners, because coming at this particular moment in history, it will affect the future of this county permanently. To my mind, they seem to be doing a respectable job, where success is measured by an equally angry number of people on either side.

When you properly plan, you can expect a crowd similar to the 100 people who showed up at the courthouse this week to discuss downzoning. A decade ago, 10 times that many showed up at North High to discuss the county's $56 million sewer debt - an occurrence, it should be noted, brought about by the county's failure to properly plan.

The Herald-Mail Articles