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Snook says growth under control

February 01, 2005|by ANDREW SCHOTZ

andrews@herald-mail.com

Any rumors of unfettered, "exploding" growth are greatly exaggerated, Washington County Commissioners President Greg Snook said in a mostly rosy State of the County address this morning.

The rate that the county's population has grown - recently, about 1 percent per year - might be a little higher when 2004 estimates come out, Snook said.

For housing, the imminent growth is more pronounced. A chart handed out showed that the county and the City of Hagerstown issued a combined 1,263 residential building permits in 2004, double what they issued four years earlier.

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"So, where are all these homes going?" Snook asked, then answered.

"Contrary to what some may believe, new residential subdivisions are not randomly sprouting up all over the county."

At least 80 percent of new housing is confined to a so-called Urban Growth Area, a map showed.

"Keep in mind this growth is not unexpected," Snook told business and government officials at the Clarion Hotel and Conference Center Antietam Creek in Hagerstown. "It's something county government has been planning for - a robust economy and a vibrant community."

Each year, the Hagerstown-Washington County Chamber of Commerce holds the large breakfast forum and invites the County Commissioners president to discuss the future.

In a 20-minute address today, Snook talked about out how the county has excelled, as well as challenges that loom ahead.

Some of the pluses, he said, have been in finances. The county is making "considerable headway" in paying down its debt and it saved $7 million in interest payments last year alone by refinancing bonds, Snook said.

The general fund cash reserve account has reversed from $766,000 in the hole in 1995 to a surplus of $17.2 million, a chart provided to the audience showed.

At 3.9 percent last year, unemployment was low, while 1,600 new jobs were created and 300 jobs were kept here, Snook said.

The total assessable tax base grew by more than $900 million, one of the largest increases the county has had, he said.

But growth comes at a price.

Snook said the county must continue to increase funding to the public school system, where enrollment is growing by about 2.5 percent, requiring new or expanded schools.

At the same time, the share of state funding for school construction projects has dropped from a target level of 65 percent to about 20 percent, Snook said.

The same funding trend exists in other areas, such as roads, he said. The county is working on a five-year plan to invest $3 million to $5 million per year in road upgrades, Snook said.

"Again, this is Washington County picking up a lot of costs because of state budget cuts," he said.

To keep pace with growth, the county has put programs in place to increase revenues, including an excise tax and Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance fees on schools and roads.

The County Commissioners have proposed increasing an $8,500-per-unit APFO fee. They are considering boosting the fee to $13,000 for single-family homes and $15,500 for multi-family homes, Snook said.

"Essentially, we are holding growth and development responsible for its impact on the county," he said.

In a new format, three panelists - including Bob Maginnis, The Herald-Mail's editorial page editor - grilled Snook and the other county commissioners following the State of the County address.

They asked the commissioners to defend the Hagerstown Regional Airport runway expansion, explain the county's position on Washington County Hospital moving to Robinwood Drive and talk about the need for affordable housing.

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