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Why citizens should back land compensation plans

October 29, 2004

The Washington County Commissioners this week extended the ban on large developments in rural areas for three months while they devise a way to compensate rural property owners for value they could lose as the result of a comprehensive rezoning.

That's a positive step forward. Without some compensation, a court challenge was almost certain. And, the three-month extension gives the commissioners time to begin educating the public on what such a program will cost - and why citizens should agree to pay it.

The first and best reason for citizens to go along with this compensation idea is that they have no choice.

Unless someone pays rural landowners to preserve green space, it will be developed. Then, existing taxpayers will see increased tax bills for schools, roads, law enforcement and everything else that goes along with a population boom.

So there are two choices - pay for preservation or pay for development. To us, the choice seems obvious because the development option means more traffic, crowded schools until construction catches up and the loss of the county's rural character.

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So how would the county pay for this? We suggest this as a possibility:

Float a bond issue and use the proceeds to negotiate perpetual easement agreements. The bonds would be retired with a surcharge placed on county property and income taxes.

In that way, property owners could be compensated as soon as the bonds are sold, while citizens would be able to pay the costs over a period of years.

Some may question why today's citizens should pay for preservation agreements that will yield benefits long after they're gone.

The answer: Property owners in the future will pay higher taxes because it will be more desirable to live in a county where much of the rural land has been preserved.

That doesn't resolve the affordable-housing issue, but it should make it possible to preserve agriculture. If a farm can't be developed, it could be sold at a price that would allow someone who didn't inherit the property to start farming it.

We know what happens when development overtakes a county. Taxes go up, roads get clogged and schools get crowded. If costs are going up in any case, why not pay to preserve the best of what is here now?

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