Developing issues

September 04, 2005|By TAMELA BAKER


Drive in almost any direction in Washington County these days and you will find new building projects sprouting up all over the place. Much of this new development is residential, with former Montgomery and Frederick county residents traversing South Mountain in search of less congestion - and more bang for their real estate bucks.

In the first four calendar months of this year, requests for new projects were up by 30 percent from last year, according to Washington County Planning Director Michael Thompson.

And "there's a lot we haven't seen yet," he added.

And that's just in the county - it doesn't count development that's been approved in any of Washington County's nine municipalities.


Despite the forest of new housing growing around the county, Thompson said it's only a portion of what's being planned, and there are a number of lots of record - about 1,000 in or near the Urban Growth Area outside Hagerstown - already approved that haven't been developed yet.

So many requests are coming in for building approvals that the planning department has difficulty keeping up - sometimes lagging six to eight weeks behind on processing permits, he said. There were 373 applications for new housing received in June alone, Thompson said, and staff members are working nights and weekends to catch up.

The eruption of new development has implications for Washington County on a number of fronts, from strains on the infrastructure of roads and sewer systems to school capacity to costs for expanding health care, emergency services and law enforcement.

"I wouldn't call it exponential, but it's significant enough that it can't be ignored, and we're not," said Gary Rohrer, director of public works for Washington County,

Where are they coming from?

Thompson said a "tremendous amount of out-of-town developers" have discovered Washington County, and Washington County Commissioners Vice President William J. Wivell said the development environment has changed - these developers "are looking to develop in about half the time" that county officials have been accustomed to.

"I don't think we can keep up," he said.

The residential areas they're developing are being marketed not just to local residents, but to people moving from other areas, mostly Frederick and Montgomery counties, Thompson said.

More players are coming into the county, he added, some wanting to develop not just one, but two or three tracts of properties.

"The developments being discussed are substantial in size, the latest being the development near Williamsport with over 1,200 units," Thompson said. "These projects have ranged from around 100 to over 1,400 (units)."

The result, in a traditionally rural county, is "some butting between rural and development forces," he said. But he rebutted what he said is a frequent assumption that the county "just rolls over for these guys. We gotta live here, too."

The 'real key'

County officials say the rate of development poses several challenges for local government, notably in the capacity of school buildings to accommodate new students and the capacity of water and sewer systems to deal with waste.

"The biggest challenge is gonna be the school issue," Rohrer said. "We will be building a new school every year for the next five years" - partly because of added population, and partly because the school system is dealing with aging facilities.

Additionally, he said, growth continues to affect water and wastewater, and that, he noted, has the potential to slow everything.

"Change is inevitable," Rohrer said. "The thought of bringing everything to a complete halt ... would be fiscally devastating to our county.

"But the real key thing is it's critical that we manage growth."

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