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Compensating landowners for lost equity won't be easy

August 17, 2006

When the Washington County Commissioners approved a rural rezoning plan on a 3-2 vote in 2005, even the three who voted for it acknowledged it wasn't perfect.

As Commissioner Doris Nipps said, the county board had done the best that it could and it was time to get on to something else.

But in an effort to ease the ill feelings the plan spawned among many property owners, the commissioners agreed to create a mechanism to compensate landowners for equity lost as result of the rezoning plan.

And they promised to do it by Aug. 1 of this year.

To nobody's great surprise, the county board didn't make the deadline. After all, this is the board that extended the moratorium on large-scale rural development several times, because they were unsure - not to mention divided - on how to proceed on the zoning issue.

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It would take a judge such as the Old Testament's Solomon to find a method that would satisfy everyone at this point.

But if the commissioners are determined to try, we suggest they consider the following:

Since the first moratorium, there has been a large increase in land prices.

Since the ordinance was first proposed, the commissioners modified it to ease restrictions on the number of lots a landowner can develop.

Recently the state has announced its own new curbs on development, restrictions that factor septic effluent into the amount of nutrients that can be discharged - and eventually reach the Chesapeake Bay.

Because land prices have increased and the commissioners relaxed their initial restrictions on development, it is possible that even though the landowner might be able to develop fewer lots, he or she might make as much or more on the development that is allowed.

Put a simpler way, if the government says you can only sell five of the 20 apples you have, but the price of each apples doubles or triples, the restriction might not hurt you at all.

Any mechanism to compensate landowners for lost equity needs to take all that into consideration.

But what everyone involved has to realize is that the state was never going to accept continued development in agriculturally-zoned areas at the one-lot-per-acre rate.

Though the land remains in private hands, the state has the power to restrict its development by withholding money for schools, roads and other infrastructure.

The commissioners surely knew that, and if they didn't, shame on them.

Those members of the county board who believe landowners were harmed must take the lead in creating a mechanism to determine whether that occurred, and if so, what the county owes as a result.

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