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County board will vote on flawed zoning plan July 12

July 01, 2005|by BOB MAGINNIS

The Independence Day weekend is a fitting moment to discuss the topic of zoning and the rural rezoning plan that the Washington County Commissioners will vote on July 12.

That's because zoning is a legal device to limit a property owner's freedom to do whatever he or she wants with their land.

If you doubt that some limits are necessary, remember those stories The Herald-Mail periodically runs about so-called "adult businesses" whose owners locate them in communities where they're not welcome. Without zoning, picketing is just about residents' only option.

That's not the kind of zoning change the commissioners are considering, however. What they propose is to limit development in areas where there are no municipal water or sewer systems to serve it.

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It was concern about groundwater resources, among other things, that led the previous county board to declare a moratorium on large-scale rural developments in October 2002.

At that point, there had been no survey of groundwater resources. Without one, the commissioners feared what might happen if many wells went dry, or worse, if there was an outbreak of hepatitis such as one that hit the Martin's Crossroads area in the 1980s. That forced installation of a municipal water system.

There was pressure from the state as well. In 2001, County Planning Director Robert Arch said Maryland officials had told local governments that they could approve large, multi-unit developments in rural areas, but if problems resulted, they would have to pay for them without state help.

But when the commissioners took the idea to public hearings, those who attended were about 250-to-1 in opposition to it. The commissioners backed off, named a citizen panel to study the idea and eventually modified the plan to allow many property owners to carve out three to five building lots.

But there are still those who are concerned about the loss-of- equity issue. Elsewhere on this page, Tom Berry of Rohrersville has a letter to the editor reminding the commissioners that there are 14,000 property owners out there, many of who are presumably registered voters.

On the loss-of-equity issue, back in 2001 Arch said the state had taken the position that the interests of the overall community take precedence over the interests of individual landowners.

Could the county government compensate all landowners for the loss of value? Probably not, given the recent spike in land prices. If the commissioners had had the foresight to issue bonds for the purpose of buying easements in 2001, maybe they could have done something, but now they will probably face litigation on the issue.

I attended their June 20 workshop on this topic and was disappointed that, after being chewed over for several years, the plan is still a mish-mash.

Transferable development rights, or TDRs, which would allow rural area landowners to sell rights to developers in areas where water and sewer is available, have been talked about for at least four years, but aren't part of the plan.

Neither is an ag land preservation plan that pleases many farmers, who don't necessarily want the nuisance complaints that come when new homeowners discover that living next to a farm involves smelling manure, dealing with dust and with livestock that sometimes break through fences.

Nor have former Commissioner John Schnebly's suggestions been included. He proposed that developers be required to have long-term responsibility for the operation of wells and septic tanks in their developments.

I saw the start of zoning in Washington County; its evolution hasn't always been smooth. I heard the process denounced as communism in the 1970s and watched as the late Don Frush, instrumental in enacting the first zoning ordinance, told local officials he'd received a letter containing a folded piece of toilet paper with something inside that wasn't chewing gum.

The plan the commissioners will vote on July 12 is imperfect, but is better than what Washington County has now, in that it will curb sprawl development, the costs of which would be shared by all of us.

I would call on the current commissioners to go back to the drawing board and fix the flaws, but I don't believe this group is capable of doing in a few weeks what they couldn't manage in several years.

Commissioners President Greg Snook, who voted against the moratorium in 2002, said he felt the county could have explored other ways to control growth. As the Yoda character in "Star Wars" might say, explore they have, done enough they haven't.

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

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