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County is going to grow

get over it

July 24, 2005|By George Michael

With the recent 3-2 vote on rural rezoning of Washington County by the commissioners, the question is, has the county become too anti-growth for its own good?

Washington County is experiencing significant growth. The latest government estimates place our growth at 2 percent for 2003-04. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? And how should we "manage" this growth, if indeed managing growth is really possible?

It should be kept in mind that Berkeley County, W.Va., directly south of us, had a growth rate 90 percent higher than Washington County during 2003-04. That would be called serious growth.

Since the building moratorium was passed about three years ago for Washington County, only about 220 lots per year have been subdivided in the rural areas of the county. Growth has been directed into the Urban Growth Area (UGA) immediately around Hagerstown. But how much growth will the UGA be able to tolerate? The Robinwood/Edgewood corridor is already outdated on road capacity. One could argue that growth should be spread around the county and not concentrated so heavily in a narrow zone which may not have the infrastructure to sustain it.

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Granted, it makes sense to attempt to direct the growth in order to provide sewer services and schools. However, providing these services has always been a function of government. It is a question of how best to keep pace with the growth.

Given our location, growth is inevitable. We are just west of one of the biggest metroplexes in the nation. At over 560 people per square mile, Maryland ranks fifth highest in population density of all the states. Most of it of course is found in the Baltimore and D.C. suburbs, but we can't escape the spillover effect this has on our area.

Additionally, we are at the crossroads of two major interstate highways. Hagerstown is ideally situated as a retail and transportation hub. We may not like it, but geography creates destiny. To suppose we can keep our area looking like it did in 1950 is nave.

Some growth is desirable. One benefit of growth is an increased tax base. Another is making it possible for the children raised in this area to be able to buy a home and stay in the area. Another is providing a place where businesses will be able to either locate or expand. You can't complain about the job market while making it onerous for anybody to want to move here. Good corporations that provide productive jobs will decide they are not wanted and move elsewhere.

The biggest tragedy of the comprehensive rezoning is that it will not accomplish what the "preservationists" say they desire. In the new zoning, the area designated Agriculture will have the density changed from one-acre lots to five-acre lots for subdividing. This means that Washington County's farmland will be gobbled up five times faster than before. The plan will accomplish just the opposite of what the anti-growth crowd says it wants. This is called the Law of Unintended Consequences.

Is it important or even possible to keep Washington County as a "viable" farming area given our location and the economic challenges facing farmers? Farmers are the backbone of the economy. We should support the farmers who still want to farm. But we shouldn't penalize those who want to get out and provide for their own retirement. That is their pension plan. Farming is best done currently in places like Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas and Nebraska. We're not in Kansas, Toto.

And too bad for you if you live in the large areas of our county where the new zoning ratios are 1 to 20, or 1 to 30 acres. Don't expect a "thank you" card from the county.

Due to the spillover effect and very low interest rates, land and housing prices have been going crazy. Many other communities are facing the same challenges. But the situation has been made worse by the moratorium and the UGA and the approaching land controls.

Those who are pushing for strict controls on development need to realize the impact this will have on the economy. The controls have reduced and will reduce the supply of available housing. The artificial shortage drives up the price of land and housing. The effort by government to solve one problem, when ignoring market forces, creates a new problem as a result.

Now the cry is for affordable housing. Another government program, funded by taxpayers will be necessary to subsidize housing to rectify this. You can't argue on the one hand, as some have done, that development ought to be paid for by those doing the development and then turn around and argue that somebody else (taxpayers) foot the bill to provide affordable housing for its citizens. Which will it be?

One of the arguments favoring rezoning has been preserving the rural and scenic beauty of the county. All well and fine. But at whose expense? Are some to be penalized and have their land tied up and essentially taken away from them so others can enjoy nice rides through the countryside?

Growth has it downsides. Most of us prefer fewer traffic lights, shorter lines at the stores and stable school environments. And unfortunately, the growth issue has divided the community. But life changes. Like it or not, we need to adjust to these changes and move on. Or just move.

The other question is, have we heard the last of it on rural rezoning of the county? Probably not.

George Michael is a Big Pool resident who writes for The Herald-Mail.

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