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Developers' free rides create jam for taxpayers

November 21, 2004|by JOE LANE

The chickens are coming home to roost, so to speak. Excessive developer influence on the Washington County Commissioners has created a crisis in school funding. These commissioners have been unwilling to require developers to pay for road upgrades, and now we are millions of dollars behind the curve on road construction.

Our sewer system is reaching capacity and we still have close to $50 million of sewer debt. Developers have been making huge profits and these commissioners have done virtually nothing to recover any of the costs of development. I do not understand why these commissioners are unwilling to make developers pay even a small fraction of the costs associated with their extremely profitable developments.

The taxpayer is not getting rich developing this county. Why then should the taxpayer be forced to pay these costs? In this column I will revisit the tragic mistakes of these elected officials and give examples of solutions to the problems.

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The commissioners will tell you that they do charge developers and they will point to the Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance (APFO), which charges developers for school construction, only when the schools are full (in other words, after it is already too late).

Unfortunately, the APFO is full of loopholes for developers. The biggest one is that it does not include any of the municipalities. Every time a developer is able to annex into a town or city, he avoids thousands of dollars of school construction costs (millions in the case of a large development like Mt. Aetna Farms).

The other multimillion dollar loophole is the exemption of "lots of record." This exemption "grandfathered" in several thousand lots and subdivisions that already existed when the APFO was passed. The costs of all these loopholes are now paid for by taxpayers rather than developers. Had the commissioners opted for an impact fee (like most counties that have dealt with the school funding problem) and not exempted thousands of lots, we would not have a school funding crisis.

The commissioners also chose to put an APFO fee in place for road construction (rather than an impact fee). But before the ink was dry on their weak APFO, they began giving huge discounts (as much as 75 percent) to developers. Other developers have demanded the same consideration and the taxpayers are once again stuck covering the cost of development while the developers reap huge profits.

How much worse will the traffic need to get before these commissioners begin to charge developers for the roads their developments require?

These commissioners presently do not charge developers for the increased burden placed on our police, fire and rescue services. Every new development stretches these services toward the breaking point. I do not want to see the day that someone dies because these commissioners are unwilling to charge developers for the extra burden they place on our first responders. These people put their lives on the line for all of us. They deserve better than to have the commissioners give developers yet another free pass.

New development increases the burden on nearly every public institution from libraries and parks to social services. Why should these institutions and services, built by the taxpayers of this county over many years, now be allowed to be overwhelmed by excessive new development? Clearly, new development will require new or expanded libraries, parks, etc. It seems clear that this new development should be required to pay for these costs. Once again, the commissioners have opted not to charge developers.

The water/sewer issue has the most potential to destroy this county financially. If new development at proposed densities is allowed to use septic systems, this will guarantee that we will face a future where virtually every well in the county will be contaminated by these septic systems. The limestone karst geology of this county is a gift from God to the farmers of this county. The soils of this valley are some of the best soils on earth (I'm not exaggerating) and should be preserved for that reason alone.

Though these soils are great for farming, they are completely inappropriate for septic systems. This karst geology creates a Swiss cheese of rock beneath the soil. Water flows in all directions and cannot be contained. New homes will flush their toilets and this will flow down into the septic system and out through the Swiss cheese rocks into their neighbors wells.

There is no possible way to have the proposed levels of housing density use septic systems without contaminating the wells. This contamination will happen as sure as you know what flows downhill. The taxpayers, rather than developers, will then be left paying for extending public water to replace the wells contaminated by the septic systems of new development.

Former Commissioner John Schnebly proposed a variety of solutions that would solve this potential problem, including public sewer and micro sewage treatment plants. These solutions would require developers to pay to hook up to some sort of public sewer, thus keeping our wells from being contaminated.

Since our existing public sewer system is near capacity, it will need to be expanded or a new system built. The costs of this expansion should be paid for by the developers. The only thing I have heard from the present commissioners is that we should all buy really good filters. The citizens of this county should not be forced to drink filtered sewage so that developers can increase their profit margin.




Joe lane is a Smithsburg resident who writes for The Herald-Mail.

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