State sewer rule may trump county's rural rezoning law

July 14, 2005|by BOB MAGINNIS

After years of deliberation, the Washington County Commissioners on Tuesday passed a plan to rezone 250,000 acres of rural land.

It is an imperfect solution to the problem of urban sprawl, but better than the existing zoning ordinance, crafted in the 1970s when the county was growing slowly and South Mountain was still a barrier to runaway residential development.

The new ordinance passed on a 3-2 vote, with Commissioners William Wivell and John Munson opposed.

Wivell said during a June 20 workshop that the commissioners should have begun their rewrite of the ordinance by asking farmers for their ideas on agricultural preservation.

But the commissioners rejected Wivell's request for another 60 to 90 days to work on the issue with the Agricultural Land Preservation Board.


The ordinance also lacks anything resembling transferrable development rights, or TDRs, a concept championed by Commissioner James Kercheval.

TDRs would allow farmers to sell their development rights to give developers the ability to increase density in areas served by municipal water and sewer.

The commissioners did modify the original ordinance to allow those who owned property prior to Oct. 29, 2002, to develop three to five additional lots, depending on how much property they own.

That may prevent litigation, given the soaring land prices we've seen recently.

But it probably will not be the last word on development, because of the nutrient loading limits announced recently by the Maryland Department of the Environment.

The regulations, being circulated for comment now, would create absolute limits on how much nitrogen or phosphorous a county could discharge into the streams from sewer plants - and into the ground from septic systems.

Those new rules, more than the new zoning ordinance, may be the final determinant of how much development can occur here - and where.

With an absolute limit, county officials would not only have to look at how much residential development would occur, but also at how much capacity they would need to hold in reserve for future commercial and industrial development.

Wouldn't it be awful if one of those high-tech or biotech industries came calling and Washington County were so hamstrung by the new state rules that it couldn't serve them?

A reader called Wednesday to ask that I clarify something in my Tuesday column about the new Medicare Part D drug benefit. The income limits listed in the column refer to eligibility for help with the $37-per-month premiums and not eligibility for the program itself.

Everybody who is eligible for Medicare is eligible for this new prescription drug assistance program. It's voluntary, not mandatory.

But if you don't sign up and a program you're enrolled in now, such as the Maryland Pharmacy Assistance Program, goes out of business, you might find yourself paying full price for your prescriptions.

Please pay attention to what you or your senior-citizen relatives receive in the mail and to the regular updates we'll provide on this page.

Andy Smith of Brothers United Who Dare to Care recently announced that a summer program to teach youths in the central part of Hagerstown how to use computers is in jeopardy.

Smith said an air conditioner in the Martin Luther King Center on North Street has failed, which means it's too hot for youths to work there.

If anyone has a 12,500 BTU unit wired for 110-volt outlets and could donate it, it would be much appreciated. Smith said that in addition to teaching the youths a valuable skill, it also keeps them out of mischief.

If you can help, please call Smith at 301-393-9290.

The Herald-Mail held the second of its online chats with Hagerstown Mayor Richard "Dick" Trump on Tuesday and it drew a lively round of questions covering a wide variety of topics.

A number of people have agreed to join us at some point, including Hagerstown Councilman Kristin Aleshire, Washington County Health Officer William Christoffel and Washington County Hospital CEO James Hamill.

If you have suggestions for other people you'd like to see us set up chats with, please send your suggestions to Editorial Page, The Herald-Mail. P.O. Box 439, Hagerstown, MD 21741, or e-mail them to

Bob Maginnis is Opinion Page editor of The Herald-Mail.

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