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Another county legacy lost Fairness

October 08, 2006|by Tom Firey

Washington County math teachers had to be shaking their heads after reading a recent Herald-Mail editorial.

According to the Aug. 17 editorial, "If the government says you can only sell five of the 20 apples you have, but the price of each apple doubles or triples, the restriction might not hurt you at all." Of course, selling one-fourth of the apples at double or triple the original price doesn't yield nearly as much money as selling all of the apples at the original price.

The gaffe, though embarrassing, is a simple case of not paying enough attention to one's math. But it also is a perfect symbol of the issues that were the subject of the editorial.

For readers who don't know newspaper jargon, an editorial represents the careful, considered position of the newspaper as an institution. Editorials are different from columns, op-eds or letters to the editor, which are the opinions of individual people.

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The subject of the Aug. 17 editorial was local farmer Gerry Ditto's complaint that the Washington County Commissioners have not fulfilled their 2005 promise to compensate rural landowners for lost equity from the county's recent downzoning. In the editorial, The Herald-Mail largely dismissed Ditto's complaint, reasoning that the increase in county building lot prices over the past few years has likely returned rural parcel values to 2002 levels, the year downzoning was effectively implemented.

Perhaps that's true; perhaps not. Perhaps lot prices have multiplied 10 or 20 times, offsetting the rezoning of the majority of the county's ground to densities of one house per 20 or 30 acres. Perhaps landowners have regained 2002 land values.

But this is 2006, not 2002, and the past four years have seen the greatest appreciation in real estate prices in local history. Since 2002, home values in the Washington County-Berkeley County statistical area have risen some 67.5 percent, according to federal data. Practically all of that increase is due to the rising value of the lots on which the houses sit.

The county's undeveloped rural land should have experienced a similar increase. Yet, the Herald-Mail editorial gave no thought to any of that missing appreciation, just as it failed to think about its math.

That's why the error is such a perfect symbol of the past several years' downzoning controversy. The controversy's hallmark is the lack of sincere thought and consideration for the concerns over downzoning that have been raised by farmers and other rural landowners. Instead, their concerns have largely been ignored, they've been patronized, shown disrespect and condescension and they've been discounted as "greedy," "regressive" and "anti-community."

What did they do to merit such treatment? Question whether downzoning will deliver the growth control benefits that proponents claimed; raise concerns that downzoning will hurt affordable housing in the area; and demand that if the community wants the supposed benefits of downzoning, then the whole community should fairly share in downzoning's costs.

It's difficult to argue that the first two complaints haven't proved justified and the third isn't fair.

Several weeks ago, a Herald-Mail columnist commented that growth problems would be the most pressing local issue in this fall's elections. He is incorrect. As with all elections in a free society, the most important issue will be whether government can forgo treating all of its citizens with fairness and respect to their rights. All too often, we get swept up in some crisis du jour, and we decide that fairness and rights must yield to the need to confront that crisis. And there have been a lot of supposed crises of late.

It has been said that growth threatens Washington County's "legacy." But if we fail to consider our neighbors' legitimate concerns and instead treat them with condescension, if we give little thought to the flaws in our arguments against them, if we excuse and justify government's failure to live up to its promises and if we abandon our moral obligation to fairness and respect for our neighbors, hasn't that legacy already been lost?

Thomas Firey, a Washington County native, is a Cato Institute policy scholar and Maryland Public Policy Institute senior fellow.

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