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Moratorium extension should be the final one

April 14, 2005

Faced with an April 18 deadline to act on a moratorium on large-scale rural development or allow it to expire, the Washington County Commissioners on Tuesday said they still couldn't decide what to do.

And so they extended the moratorium - once again - for another six months.

This must be the final extension. Yes, this is a tough issue and one that has the potential to end political careers.

But making the wrong decision - or worse, deciding to do nothing - could mean the difference between orderly growth and runaway development.

It is not as if the commissioners haven't had plenty of input on this issue. County staff, with citizen input, put together a new plan to restrict the number of building lots in rural areas.

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When many property owners objected, the commissioners named a citizen commission to study the zoning plan and make its own recommendations.

And some of the commissioners have studied different methods of controlling growth on their own.

Commissioner James Kercheval favors a system of transferrable development rights, in which rural property owners sell developers the right to increase housing density in other areas.

Commissioner William Wivell favors a system in which builders would get approval to develop additional lots by paying a fee, which would then be used to purchase farmland easements.

The commissioners have already compromised so that owners of small tracts can carve out lots for family members. Now they need to work out a compromise that will settle this issue, or at least move it to the next stage.

One possibility they have talked about is tightening the county's Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance. Under this scenario, growth could proceed, but with fees that would (hopefully) cover the costs associated with it.

In our view, it will take more than one measure to ensure orderly growth. Some limit on the number of lots that can be developed in a given district every year would allow school construction and other services to catch up.

On preservation, the county has a guaranteed revenue source that would allow it to issue bonds and purchase farmland easements now, while they're still affordable.

None of this will happen without someone on the board taking a leadership role by arguing for a compromise, then lobbying other county board members to go along. It's time to start that process now, because as the commissioners have found out previously, six months goes by quicker than anyone realizes.

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