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Pass rezoning on July 12

June 23, 2005

After years of work, the Washington County Commissioners will vote on the rural rezoning package on July 12. It is time to pass this, so that the county board can begin to act on other pressing local issues.

Boiled down to its essentials, the plan would increase the acreage required to build homes in agricultural and conservation areas.

After property owners objected, the commissioners modified the plan to allow many of them to sell off three to five lots, depending on the amount of acreage they have.

And on Monday, the board agreed with Commissioner James Kercheval's suggestion to allow those who agree to preserve historic structures to sell off two additional lots to cover the costs of stabilization and renovation.

The county board also is moving forward on a plan to buy farmland easements on an installment plan, as opposed to issuing bonds for that purpose.

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Despite all this, some property owners will argue that the new zoning will reduce the value of their land. But the recent upward explosion in real estate prices makes it difficult to believe that anyone who owns any sizeable piece of ground will not do well when they decide to sell.

Beyond that, however, to allow development to continue under the rules set down in the previous zoning ordinance would place an unfair burden on all taxpayers.

Washington County is already playing catch-up on school and road construction because local officials relied on flawed state projections that the county would continue to grow slowly for the foreseeable future.

That's why county officials quickly pushed for an excise tax that five years ago would have been denounced as the death knell for any sort of affordable housing.

That's one of the issues the commissioners need to address after the rezoning is passed, unless they want to tell local residents with moderate incomes that buying a house here is no longer possible.

The commissioners also have to deal with the state sewer-limit issue raised by Kercheval on Tuesday. As he described it, once a sewer plant reached capacity, it couldn't be enlarged or another one built.

Without capacity, new homes would have to utilize septic systems, which, given the county's limestone geology, are potential pollution sources. State officials must be convinced that absolute limits make no sense.

Then there's the water issue. During the last drought, some called for a study of the county's groundwater resources. It was never done, which means that those who purchase a new home with a well have no idea of the odds of it going dry.

The commissioners also need to take their relationship with Hagerstown to the next level. The 2-plus-2 committee - two commissioners and two members of the City Council - has made much progress, but it's time to look at which city and county services could be combined to save taxpayers money.

As the commissioners who attended Monday's meeting admitted, the rezoning package is not perfect. Components such as farmland preservation and transferrable development rights (TDRs) should have been part of it, as well as new zoning for the Urban Growth Area.

However, this is probably the best that this board can do at this time. To start all over, as Commissioner William Wivell suggested, would be a backward step this county cannot afford.

The commissioners should pass the rural rezoning on July 12.

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