Urgency about local growth a recent phenomenon

February 03, 2005|by BOB MAGINNIS

At Tuesday's State of the County event, Washington County Commissioners President Greg Snook tried to combat the growing public perception that a wave of uncontrolled growth is sweeping over South Mountain like a tsunami.

The growth is not unexpected, he said. Rather, he told the Hagerstown/Washington County Chamber of Commerce, it's something government has been planning for.

With all due respect to the people who are working hard to get ready for this growth, there's a lot more urgency - and a lot more action - than there was just a few years ago.

When the commissioners proposed a 1 percent tax on real-estate transactions in 2001, the local delegation to the Maryland General Assembly shot it down, in part because it would have taxed local people moving from one neighborhood to the other.


It also would have raised $1.2 million a year, which is about how much it would cost to put new roofs on two schools.

In January 2003, the commissioners were still unsure how they would raise money for new school construction, or if they needed to. They told a reporter then that just having the power to enact taxes didn't mean they would actually do it.

That was believable at the time because although county government had had the right to levy impact fees in 1990, it had never done so.

Fast forward to 2005. The commissioners are now seeking removal of the cap on excise taxes, which would go from $1 per square foot to $13,000 per single-family home.

The commissioners are making the right moves now, but if they and the delegation had paid more attention to what had already happened in Frederick County and nearby Loudoun County, Va., the county government would have been collecting money for schools, roads and other amenities for years longer than it did.

Why didn't they do it before now? Because every time a new fee was proposed, builders and developers raised a chorus of protest. New fees would make new homes unaffordable for the average family, they said.

Nobody's saying that now because the average Washington County family can't afford many of the large homes now being built here.

Snook said Tuesday that he had called Peter Chakmakian, a Charles Town, W.Va., attorney who recently proposed a few measures that would cut down on the cost of housing.

One feature would forgive homeowners from paying that county's $7,122 school tax if the family's income were no more than 60 percent of the county's median income and if the house and lot cost no more than 80 percent of the average home there.

Snook said finding ways to ensure that more affordable housing is built will be one of the commissioners' top goals for 2005. I hope the commissioners will get some help from all those who for years professed to be concerned about whether families could afford to buy new homes here.

The State of the County address covered many topics, but not the proposed move by Washington County Hospital to the Robinwood area.

Land-use professionals I've talked to recently have told me the county could help the hospital avoid the need for a special exception there by giving the health-care facility a zoning map text amendment.

Instead of the Board of Zoning Appeals hearing the case, the commissioners would hold a public hearing, then decide.

Snook told me afterward that because the commissioners might have to make that decision, they haven't taken a position as a body on the hospital move, although he said he has written a letter of personal support.

We're just waiting for hospital officials to decide which way to go, Snook said. So am I.

Late last year, the Rural Maryland Council gave state Sen. Donald Munson its legislator of the year award, but for some reason, I didn't get it in prior to today.

The citation noted that Munson had been instrumental in the passing of legislation to create a quasi-public agency to assist with agricultural and industrial development in rural areas.

Belated congratulations are in order to the senator.

Thanks to all who helped Jimmy and Angela Koontz, the Hagerstown parents of a baby born with a serious heart defect.

After Jimmy's 1978 pickup bit the dust, appeals produced enough money to buy the family a 1994 Chevrolet truck that he can use to get to work. The family is sending out thank-you cards to all who donated. This is mine. I'll update this story whenever I can.

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