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Rezoning: A Loudoun County perspective

July 12, 2005

By William George

In my opinion, The Herald-Mail has done an excellent job in covering the rezoning issue. I also believe the Washington County Commissioners and all those who have assisted in the rezoning discussion should be commended for their effort to develop a new zoning plan. Rezoning is always a difficult issue, as it generates a significant emotional response from so many.

My own experience has shown me how difficult it is to tackle development issues. Prior to arriving in Washington County in 1999, I was vice mayor and town council member in Lovettsville, in, Loudoun County, Va. from 1990 to 1999.

During that time, we went through two rewrites of zoning regulations, a new comprehensive plan and considerable work with the county to try to get a handle on explosive growth. In addition, as an agricultural economist, (20-plus years), I am well aware of the issues surrounding farming and the impact development can have on agriculture.

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Add to that some experience and education in water resources, sewage disposal systems, and stormwater management; I believe I have enough knowledge to be somewhat enlightened on the issues.

Previous zoning regulations always focused on maintaining maximum flexibility. Landowners were assured they could carve off building lots as needed for family, friends, or to raise some cash.

It was generally accepted that these would be isolated events, as local economic conditions pretty much assured a continuation of the status quo. Few expected that most landowners would opt to maximize the density afforded under the zoning regulations.

As the forces shaping land use change, zoning regulations must be adjusted to reflect these changes. As most are aware, there are significant costs associated with residential development, which generally does not pay its way. (I believe the figure is $1.25 in added costs for each $1 raised in revenue).

And costs escalate if growth is spread thinly over a wide area rather than focused in geographic centers where services can be provided in a more cost-effective manner.

The proposed zoning regulations make an attempt to address this issue by encouraging residential development in areas currently serviced and where population densities are highest.

However, rezoning is only part of the effort required to control development. In Loudoun County, a local columnist writing out of Leesburg (Va.) in the mid 1990s suggested that zoning only has minimal impact on development. What impacts the pace and scope of development more is one's ability to flush toilets.

Dotting the landscape with wells and septic systems will likely lead to degradation of the county's groundwater resources. Failed septic fields and contaminated ground water are expensive to fix and are beyond the means of local land owners to remedy (read government bail-out).

I can cite examples of failed septic fields in Hamilton, Va., and groundwater contamination in Frederick County, Md., as two examples. Water and sewer systems are expensive. In Lovettsville, we spent 10 years trying to expand the system and figuring out who was going to pay for it.

(If you think Hagerstown and the county arguing over water and sewer issues is a fight, consider Lovettsville. At one time we had seven lawsuits pending and we were all personally sued for $1 million each).

Now consider the problems faced in our recent drought with individual wells going dry. If you add a significant draw on underground reserves by maxing out planned densities, you can imagine the problems that would unfold.

Zoning revisions are just part of the equation in dealing with development pressures. Efforts are needed to control and manage growth in water and sewer demand if we are to avoid future problems and expenses.

By including a mechanism where density can be purchased from rural areas and moved to areas served by municipal water and sewer systems, groundwater resources could be better protected and development encouraged in areas near towns and cities. This type of development would benefit landowners and county residents and provide a much better environment for supporting and preserving Washington County's agriculture heritage.

Many have expressed the idea that rezoning would reduce accumulated value in land that families had counted on for retirement or other uses. But land values, just like stocks, are not static. The value can fluctuate based on changing economics, government regulations, technology advances, etc.

How many individuals became paper millionaires in stocks, only to see their fortunes plummet because of economic downturns, new technologies, or changing government policies (regulatory changes, tax law, government appropriations)?

On the flip side, how many have reaped millions due to these changes? Assets associated with land ownership operate much the same way. Just as with stocks, value is not realized until acted upon. Until the stock is sold, the paper value is not guaranteed.

The same is true with land. Until subdivided, its value as individual building lots is not guaranteed. Until sold, its accumulated value is not realized.

While I am not suggesting a wholesale evaporation of asset value associated with rezoning, land owners must realize that the accumulated value in land is not static and that changing economic conditions that boosted land values in the first place must, by necessity, be followed by changes in legislation governing land use.

William George is a resident of Knoxville in southern Washington County.

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