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Commissioners must now decide on a land-use plan

April 12, 2005

In January, when the Washington County Commissioners extended the moratorium on large-scale developments in rural areas for another 90 days, we said it was time for the county board to act or explain why it wouldn't.

Well, it's 90 days later, and the commissioners are on track to allow the moratorium to expire April 18 without passing proposed new zoning classifications, without knowing what groundwater resources exist in various parts of the county and, apparently, without having a unified approach on how to proceed.

Commissioner William Wivell has advanced a plan to offer builders additional lots in exchange for payments that would go to pay for farmland easements.

Commissioner James Kercheval has supported the idea of transferable development rights, a concept that allows farmers and other landowners to make money by selling the right to develop their land to others who would then get additional density elsewhere.

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Some other board members favor going ahead with the comprehensive rezoning, but haven't agreed on how landowners would be compensated for a perceived loss of equity.

Our concern is that with a lack of agreement, the board may conclude that the easiest thing to do would be to leave things as they are.

That would be a serious mistake. Wide-open development - one house per acre - could overwhelm county roads and other services.

After years of clinging to the mistaken belief that the county would continue to grow slowly for the foreseeable future, the commissioners are only now putting in place a fee structure that adequately covers some of development's costs. Does it make sense to say the equivalent of "anything goes" at this point?

And ,without a plan, what guarantee is there that the sons and daughters of those who have lived here for generations will have a chance at owning their own homes?

Some will argue that the only way to ensure that moderately priced housing is available is to allow more homes to be built. Under that theory, the argument is that some developers will choose to build lower-priced homes.

But what if they don't? There is no incentive for the developers to look out for the interests of a family who can only afford a $100,000 home when people are lining up for the $250,000 models. Government needs to give builders some incentive to add so-called "work force housing" to their developments.

For years, Montgomery County, Md., has had such a plan. Some have argued it's imperfect. It's already been court-tested, however, and if the choice is between an imperfect plan and no plan at all, the path seems clear to us.

The groundwater issue is important because if there is no moratorium, we will see large-scale developments served by wells and septic systems. If wells in a development begin to fail, the pressure will be on for the county government to "do something" about it.

Guess who will get to share in the cost of a solution if that happens? Every taxpayer, that's who.

We favor the proposals of former Commissioner John Schnebly, who said that developers of large subdivisions should have to make a multi-year commitment to see that wells and septic systems continue to work.

Schnebly also recommends "staging" developments, so that expansion of county-provided services such as schools would have time to catch up.

Finally, he favors properly allocating the cost of development, so existing taxpayers aren't paying for business deals they don't profit from.

But whether the commissioners adopt Schnebly's approach or some other, the important thing is that they agree on a way to move forward before the moratorium expires.

Not everyone will support whatever approach is taken, but all should be able to agree that not doing anything would be a terrible mistake.

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