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Why can't we seem to do things right the first time?

July 10, 2005|by TIM ROWLAND

You can't help but notice that here in Washington County we have quite a case of the "shouldas."

As in, we shoulda picked the Allegheny Energy site for the new hospital, but now it's too late to turn back, so we have to move ahead with Robinwood.

Or, we shoulda had the Fort Ritchie property assessed or put out for bid before we agreed to sell it for a song, but it's too late to go back and do it again because we already have a buyer.

Or, we shoulda thought about how many more millions of dollars this new runway is going to cost us each year in interest payments and maintenance costs before we bought in to what is very likely a pipe dream, but we're already pushing dirt, so it's too late to reconsider.

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Or, we shoulda spent the three-year housing moratorium fine-tuning our new land use plans, but now we're too far along in the process to scrap everything and start from scratch.

At this point, I dare say the "too late now" argument is probably valid in all of the above-enumerated cases. We've made our deals with the respective devils and now we're locked in.

Yes, technically speaking the hospital site isn't a lock. But the hospital brass has shown all the symptoms of a woman who has settled on a certain pair of shoes for the evening, and is unlikely to change her mind regardless of what the community might think.

Outside of that, contracts have been signed at Ritchie, earth has been moved at the airport and zoning law is up for a vote. So yes, we are basically saying we must live with these decisions, however poor they may be.

But this begs the question: Why can't we simply do things right in the first place?

Why do our decision makers always seem to get it wrong, only to realize their mistakes a couple of years later - at which point they try to justify the path they have chosen with a lame, "It's too late to start over." Too late may be a fact, but it is not an excuse.

Fort Ritchie was just a mess from the beginning. So palpable was the failure at every turn, the board finally went with the second or third best option just to show the community it was capable of doing something, anything.

Studies clearly showed that the Allegheny site was the best and cheapest spot for the new hospital, but Robinwood was chosen based, we were told, on the stated preferences of the doctors. That's fine, but doctors are not real estate brokers, traffic engineers or builders of sewer lines. My guess is that relations between the hospital and doctors was so poor following the trauma center fiasco that the hospital felt obligated to toss physicians a bone - so we ended up with a site that is convenient for doctors, since it is next to the Robinwood Medical Center, but is problematic in just about every other conceivable way.

As for the runway, Washington County may have two, perhaps three, true believers who are drinking the regional jet Kool Aid. Short of that, nobody has such delusions. Nobody. You may find plenty of business people to defend the runway extension publicly, but if they had to bet their private fortunes on the likelihood of Washington County becoming a hub for regional passenger jets by the year 2020 - you get the idea. As for the rest of us, we could pretty much sense from the get go what any comprehensive airline analysis would have shown, had the county bothered to do any: Tinkerbelle will land on the new runway before Southwest does.

But if the runway et. al. aren't shimmering successes, neither are they county crippling.

The zoning is a far more serious issue. This plan will drive the county's future, permanently and irrevocably. This is the defining era. Ten years ago the growth didn't exist; 10 years from now, damage will have largely been done. Yet the county demonstrated no urgency in making a timely and correct decision that will affect our lands forever. In fact, it was almost as if the county administration couldn't be bothered with something as mundane as land use, because all its energy was absorbed in that nutty airport scheme. This may indeed be the real tragedy of the runway.

The item that didn't matter got all the attention, while the item that mattered totally got none. When Commissioner Jim Kercheval tried to introduce the development profit-sharing idea of TDRs, everyone looked at him like he was talking about one of the Roosevelts.

Because the building moratorium has put a lot of the county's growth on hold for nearly three years, there is no excuse for not investigating growth-control mechanisms and farmland compensation plans that have proved successful in other parts of the state. There was certainly no shortage of time, just a shortage of motivation.

So once again here we are, stuck with a half-baked plan that we are basically forced to put into place because it is too late to go back and do the job right. Two or three decades from now, no one will put much thought into how or why the airport, Ritchie or the hospital came to turn out as they did. But how our county has developed will be there, front and center, for all to see and suffer with.

People will look back at these three years from 2002 to 2005 that the county administration sat around playing with airplanes and naming the Youth of the Month, when they should have been charting the county's future - and they are very likely to decide it was a pretty poor excuse for local governance.

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