Land prices, old schools, fire fees and lost civility

November 10, 2004|by BOB MAGINNIS

A week after the election, I'm still catching up on a variety of matters. The first is the issue of farmland preservation, which Washington County Commissioner William Wivell proposed to fund by allowing people with acreage to pay a $5,000 fee for every additional housing lot they would be allowed to build.

In his view, that would be a way to deal with the "lost equity" issue involved in the county's planned rezoning. Because preservation easements now run about $2,500 per acre, each additional one-acre lot allowed would preserve two acres.

Also, Wivell said, as part of the legislation that allowed the county to collect excise and transfer taxes, the county must set aside $400,000 a year for farmland preservation.

Why not just issue bonds and preserve as much land as possible now, I asked him.

Wivell said he opposes taking on additional debt because debt service on each $1 million in bonds issued costs the county $100,000 a year until the bond issue is retired.


But because there's a guaranteed funding source of $400,000, the county could issue $4 million in bonds now. Based on the current rate, it could preserve 1,600 acres of land. Which acres? There's already a backlog of applicants for that program.

If the county opts for the pay-as-you-go-method Wivell favors, it would not only undermine its own rezoning plan, the county would also face the risk that next year, easement costs would be more expensive.

I understand Wivell's reluctance to take on too much debt. County boards that issue too many bonds today could unfairly foreclose options for their successors. But land's not getting any cheaper, either.

Wivell's explanation of his idea will run on this page later this week. Let the discussion continue.

Speaking of land prices, the Washington County school system's reconsideration of the idea of closing Conococheague Elementary School is a good thing, even if the facility isn't in tip-top shape.

Second thoughts are better than regrets. For example, what if the county hadn't disposed of Washington Street School and could now relocate students of the landlocked Winter Street Elementary School there?

What if the county hadn't gotten rid of Woodland Way and Surrey elementary schools? Might both have been magnet schools of some sort?

Take a second look at Conococheague? Yes.

Sunday's story about Washington County fire companies sending invoices to property owners who get service demonstrates what happens when government fails to act.

For years, companies have been saying that their voluntary fund drives have yielded nothing near what is needed to pay for operations.

The previous board of county commissioners had planned to help the companies run a combined countywide fund drive. For years I've touted that, saying that if it failed, county officials would be on firmer ground in enacting a fire tax.

But county officials did neither, so the companies acted on their own. So now, if you don't subscribe during the annual drive for $30 to $50, you might get a bill for $1,000 or more if your house burns down.

The companies will still have the cost of billing, but if they'd waited for government to act, they might not have had a system left to run.

While going through old files on impact fees, I came across a 1990 full-page ad placed in opposition to such fees by the Home Builders Association of Washington County.

It featured a drawing of a sad family with one small child saying, "Why can't we afford a new home, daddy?"

The ad's point was that impact fees would price buyers out of the market. Now that buyers are being priced out of the market for other reasons, I await with great interest this group's proposal to preserve the affordable-housing option for people who grew up here, but who can't afford a $300,000 house.

Years ago, the late Lem Kirk of Hancock ran against Hagerstown's John Corderman for a Maryland State Senate seat and lost. Kirk came to Corderman's victory party and agreed to let me photograph him shaking hands with his rival. Kirk congratulated the winner, then sat down and ate a plate of snacks and talked to the other guests. He was disappointed, but not bitter or angry.

If I had known how rare that sort of post-election civility would become, I would have paid much more attention to it then.

The Herald-Mail Articles