Rezoning plan OK'd

July 13, 2005|by TARA REILLY


Nearly three years and four growth moratorium extensions later, the Washington County Commissioners on Tuesday approved a controversial plan that limits growth on more than 250,000 of the county's rural acres.

The County Commissioners approved the rural rezoning plan by a 3-2 vote. The approval lifts the moratorium that has been in place since late 2002 on major development in rural areas, Commissioners Vice President William J. Wivell said after the meeting.

The rezoning plan, which is part of the county's Comprehensive Plan, reduces the number of homes allowed in rural areas and attempts to direct growth to areas that have the resources such as water, sewer, road and school capacities to handle it.


The plan, however, leaves some flexibility in the amount of growth allowed in rural areas.

The commissioners agreed to develop a program that provides compensation to some landowners by allowing greater development in certain rural and urban areas in exchange for agricultural easements for farmland preservation.

The plan also gives landowners who owned property as of October 29, 2002, an exemption to subdivide three to five lots, depending on the acreage, in addition to the number of lots allowed under the new rezoning densities.

Additional exemptions are available to developers of historic properties under certain conditions.

It's the first time in 30 years the commissioners have approved such a large overhaul to the Comprehensive Plan, Commissioners President Gregory I. Snook said. The commissioners eventually plan to consider the rezoning of the Urban Growth Area, a designated area mainly around the City of Hagerstown where growth is encouraged.

Snook, who cast the tie-breaking vote, supported the rural rezoning plan along with commissioners James F. Kercheval and Doris J. Nipps.

Commissioners Vice President William J. Wivell and Commissioner John C. Munson voted against the plan.

"I think this is very unfair to the landowners," said Munson, who has argued that the rezoning plan would drive up housing costs and put a hardship on lower-income residents.

Munson also said he thought the plan was unconstitutional and that the majority of the county's residents disapproved of the rezoning, also known as downzoning.

He made a motion to delay a vote on the rezoning plan and to have the taxpayers decide the matter through a referendum.

"After all, we work for them," he said. "They don't work for us."

Munson's motion was not seconded.

County Attorney Richard Douglas said the commissioners wouldn't be allowed to move forward with a referendum without the appropriate legislation.

"Yes, we can," Munson said. "I just hope this doesn't pass, because you're hurting everyone in this county."

Wivell said the rezoning plan would direct the most growth to agricultural areas that contain the best soils for farming. He motioned that the vote on the plan be delayed 60 to 90 days so the Washington County Agricultural Land Preservation Advisory Board could develop an equity and agricultural preservation program.

Munson seconded Wivell's motion, but the majority rejected it.

Under the rezoning proposal, one home would be allowed for every 5 acres in an agriculture zone.

For example, a property owner with 100 acres in an agriculture zone would be able to build 20 homes.

Currently, one home per acre is allowed in the agriculture zone.

The plan would allow one home per 20 acres on land zoned environmental conservation and one home per 30 acres in preservation zones. Both designations are new.

Landowners have said the rezoning proposal would devalue their land by limiting its development potential.

Snook said Tuesday he hasn't seen evidence that land values will decrease.

"And I don't think that will happen," Snook said.

Kercheval said in a written statement that the rezoning changes are needed not for open space, but to protect the county's agricultural industry. He said the industry provides jobs and pumps millions into the local economy annually.

He also said rezoning needed to protect the resources currently in place in the county, such as clean and sufficient water supplies, and the $32 million the county has spent on preservation easements over the years.

"If we allow sprawl to go unchecked, we will have wasted a significant portion of that money as conflicts between development and farming operations force the farmers to move elsewhere ... or lose their ability to make a living," he said in the statement. "Responsible zoning and management of rural development protects that multimillion dollar investment."

How they voted

The Washington County Commissioners approved by a 3-2 vote Tuesday a rezoning plan that limits growth in rural areas by reducing the number of homes allowed in those areas. Here's how they voted:

Yes: Gregory I. Snook, James F. Kercheval, Doris J. Nipps

No: John C. Munson, William J. Wivell

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