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County Commissioners continue to give developers a free ride

November 06, 2005|By Joe Lane

"Growth is under control" is my favorite Washington County Commissioner quote. Though these words were spoken by Greg Snook, it seems it is a sentiment shared by all the commissioners and state delegation. Actions speak louder than words and the actions of these elected officials show they believe growth is under control and should be encouraged.

Back in 2001,when the comprehensive plan was being created, the planners used five growth projections to predict future growth in Washington County. At the low end of the projections was the "State Planning Projection" that growth would remain at less than 1 percent per year. (Like in the '50s through the '80s).

At the other end of the spectrum was the "Super Wave" of growth with "massive amounts of new residents pouring over South Mountain."

Nevertheless, commissioners make development-friendly appointments. The commissioners appoint the head of the planning department, as well as the entire Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA). The BZA is sometimes referred to as the Board of Zoning Approval because of its track record of approving all but the most half-baked appeals.

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It is not surprising that the hospital would choose this venue to make its case. In his interview with The Herald-Mail, Mike Thompson, the head of the planning department, seemed completely comfortable with the record growth we are experiencing, and certainly showed no alarm at our surpassing "Super Wave" levels of growth.

He clearly has a very low priority for farmland preservation. He may talk of preserving farms, but it is more useful to look at the staffing allocation within his department. The entire farmland preservation program, which includes managing a dozen state and federal farmland preservation programs, all consultation, outreach and the ongoing paperwork requirements to keep this preservation money flowing, is managed by a staff of exactly one person and his fractional portion of a secretary. Excuse me Mr. Thompson while I laugh (or should I cry) when you say your department is serious about preserving farms. How many staff members are dedicated to ensuring that new development proceeds unabated?

The Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance (APFO) says that if a developer wants to build in an area of the county where the schools, roads, sewer, etc., are at or above capacity, then that development cannot proceed until the necessary schools, roads, etc., are built. No exceptions.

The APFO has existed since 1991. It hasn't done much to stop development. The commissioners voted to exempt thousands of "lots of record" and created a great many other loopholes for small and large developments to continue. As a result, the South Hagerstown High School feeder system has been packed past capacity and then squeezed into trailer parks and repacked past capacity again. The crisis is so bad that the weak APFO finally kicked in and stopped a large subdivision because the schools are so far over capacity.

The commissioners' response was swift. Within a week the commissioners were amending the APFO to allow themselves (and exclude the Board of Education) to "mitigate" when schools, roads, etc., are past capacity. If the commissioners use "Mayor Dick Trump-style" mitigation, a developer could build a fountain in Williamsport and then overpack the schools with a massive new 1,200 unit subdivision.

For a developer, these commissioners are the gift that keeps giving. It was just a couple of weeks ago these commissioners proposed a "workforce housing" exemption to the APFO. It works like this. If a developer builds a house that is less than 1,500 square feet (say 1,499 sq. ft.), it is exempt from paying for schools, roads, fire and rescue, sewers, etc.

The commissioners should not use affordable housing as an excuse to allow developers to overcrowd our schools and roads and expect the existing taxpayer to cover the cost.

The airport continues to suck taxpayer dollars and even a historic house into its vortex. Truth is stranger than fiction, but the historic house must be destroyed to make way for bigger, emptier airplanes. According to the Capital Improvement Program, FY 2007 will have county taxpayers giving $23 million to this project (more than double the amount for schools).

Recently, the commissioners and state delegation convinced the feds to throw another $1 million down the subsidy hole. All these millions are wasted to keep empty planes flying in and out of Hagerstown for a couple more years. They tell me I will benefit once the feds pay us back and the money trickles down through the network of local and regional developers and contractors. I am not convinced.

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