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On zoning, county must eye preservation options

November 04, 2004

The Washington County Commissioners last week extended the two-year-old moratorium on large-scale housing developments in rural areas.

Why? So that they could figure out a way to compensate property owners for value lost as a result of the comprehensive plan's proposed zoning changes.

Commissioner William Wivell has taken the first step toward figuring out how to do that, but his proposal leaves us with some questions.

Wivell said that he would like to fund farm preservation by giving landowners the opportunity to develop more lots by paying $5,000 for every additional acre on which a home would be built.

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In his example, an owner with five acres in the new agricultural zone who would normally be allowed to build only one home could pay $20,000 and build four additional homes.

How many additional homes would have to be built to pay for a significant amount of farm preservation?

Last October the county paid just under $250,000 for a preservation easement to protect a 100-acre farm near Keedysville.

To raise that amount under Wivell's proposal, an additional 50 homes would have to be allowed. Those homes would generate new students, traffic and other expenses that would not be covered by the fee, but passed on to all taxpayers. We're not sure that paying for preservation by encouraging additional development is the way to go.

The commissioners need to be straight with citizens. Taxes paid by new homeowners will not cover the costs of the services they require. Citizens can pay for preservation now, or pay the cost of development later.

It's one or the other, because as Russell Williams of the Washington County Board of Education observed recently, "There is no free lunch."

The commissioners would do well to explore the cost of preservation now. If they decide against that approach, they need to revisit former Commissioner John Schnebly's proposal for large-scale developments.

Schnebly's plan would require developers to have an ongoing responsibility for the wells and septic systems in their developments, acting as mini-utilities. They would not be able to build and then just walk away.

The wave of growth is finally coming, but those who are already here - and who won't profit from it - shouldn't be asked to pay for it.

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