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Effort to pass rural rezoning moves a step ahead Tuesday

June 21, 2005|by BOB MAGINNIS

If your definition of an acceptable compromise is one that contains something to irritate everybody, that's what the Washington County Commissioners seem poised to create with the county's rural rezoning proposal.

After a two-hour workshop on the topic Tuesday that included discussions with many who attended, Commissioner James Kercheval acknowledged that attendees raised some good ideas, but the county must move forward now.

"Approving what has been proposed is better than what we have now," he said.

Some history: In an attempt to control sprawl development and preserve farmland - and because they feared a drought might lead to lots of dried-up wells - the previous board of commissioners enacted a moratorium on large-scale rural development in October 2002.

That moratorium has been extended four times, the last in April of this year. During that time, the commissioners appointed a task force to study, among other things, how to compensate landowners for any loss of equity that results from the new plan.

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Why would equity be lost?

Because 10 years ago, only one acre was required to build a home in an agricultural area. Under the new proposal, new homes in the same district would require five acres, although clustering could reduce lot sizes and preserve more land for farming.

To ease that blow, the commissioners agreed to a compromise that will allow property owners to sell off three to five additional lots, based on how much acreage they own.

Beyond that, there is no compensation mechanism, although the rapid increase in land prices that's taken place since the moratorium was put in place might make that easier to swallow.

The most important thing to come out of Tuesday's session was the news that the county's proposal to encourage building in the Urban Growth Area (UGA) - a designated area for higher-density development - might be stymied by a new state rule on sewers.

Planning Director Michael Thompson said that state officials are setting discharge limits for local governments all over the state.

Thompson said it used to be that when a sewer plant reached its capacity, it was either enlarged or a new plant built. No more. When the discharge limit is reached, that will be it, he said.

Unless that dictate is relaxed, he said, there might not be enough capacity for all of the development now planned for the UGA, he said.

The same rule might also derail Kercheval's proposal for a system of transferrable development rights, or TDRs.

In that system, a farmer or other landowner can sell rights that developers can use to increase densities within the UGA or other designated growth areas.

But if sewer service isn't available in the UGA, the TDR would be worthless.

On the plus side, Commissioner William Wivell said after the meeting that the Agricultural Land Preservation Board is working on a proposal under which farmers would sell preservation easements on a time-payment plan.

Though state law requires the the county to spend $1 million a year to preserve farmland, Wivell has resisted using that money to issue bonds to buy easements. Under this plan, he said, the county could avoid borrowing and provide tax benefits to farmers.

Tuesday, the commissioners decided to send the proposal, with some small changes, to their legal counsel for drafting into an ordinance.

The commissioners will look at the draft on July 12, and, unless they decide to hold another public hearing, will vote on it then.

At this point, I'm not sure it will pass. Wivell told a reporter he was in favor of starting all over again. And the issue has dragged on long enough that it is certain to be an election issue next year. Nipps and Kercheval seem ready to vote for it, while Wivell and Commissioner John Munson don't.

Commissioner Greg Snook, absent from Tuesday's meeting, said later he favors the plan, but there will be pressure exerted between now and then to get him to change his mind.

At one point, Nipps apologized to the audience for the delay, saying she too was guilty of not moving things along more quickly.

I did not get the sense that the commissioners are agreed on a strategy for directing growth or preserving farmland.

What they pass - if they pass anything - will be an imperfect approach to growth and development that will be approved not because all of the commissioners are enthusiastic about it, but because they have decided that it's time to move on to other business.

Bob Maginnis is editorial page editor of The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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