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Debunking the 'downzoning' bogeyman

November 05, 2006|by TIM ROWLAND

Many property owners have doubtless heard the political campaign waged by large, rural landowners against Washington County Commissioner candidates who believe in meaningful zoning laws. The campaign contends that "downzoning" is crippling your property value.

However, there is only one thing you really need to know. Your home, lot or acreage in Washington County is much more valuable today because of zoning laws. And it will be much more valuable tomorrow because of the county's latest zoning law.

I have no problem with landowners arguing the case - and you can make it without apology - that government should not restrict land use.

But trying to scare local homeowners or farmers into thinking that their property has somehow been "devalued" because of zoning is dishonest.

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Truth be told, there are some owners of large parcels who may stand to lose a bit under the new zoning laws. But there aren't enough of these individuals to make much of a difference in an election. So a few have taken the tack of trying to excite those who own a home or a few acres in the country into thinking the county government is out to ruthlessly strip their property of its worth.

Just as wrong is their attack on Washington County Commissioner Jim Kercheval, the one commissioner who tried to float a meaningful system for compensating rural landowners, while at the same time steering growth into planned zones that are served by public utilities.

Because he voted for tighter zoning law, Kercheval has become the enemy - forget all his efforts to assist them, efforts that other commissioners didn't warm to.

Zoning, simply put, makes a county more attractive, more desirable and its property more valuable. But rambling subdivisions, built by a few landowners in improper places, can destroy that value for everyone else. As Kercheval says, "Real estate should always be a good investment; but that does not entitle people to big developments" that have an adverse effect on the county.

Property rights and property value are two decidedly different things, and they are often at odds. If any one can do any thing with any land, property ceases to be exclusive and value is lost.

If only 10 lots were available for sale in Washington County next year, they would be exponentially more valuable than if there were 10,000 lots available for sale. It's that simple.

So don't be sold on the snake oil that "downzoning" will "devalue" your property. Unless you own a whole lot of land - and even here there is an argument - the commissioners' new zoning laws will make your land more valuable.

An easy comparison and a good lesson, Kercheval says, are neighboring counties, where there are few zoning restrictions and property rights galore.

During the recent housing boom, one such county was swamped with new lots. People were buying as-yet unbuilt houses they never intended to live in, then selling them at a profit as soon as they were constructed.

But when the housing market cooled, this glut of developable lots sent the market crashing down - and fast.

If people wish to discuss lost value, here is an opportunity.

All those lots, freely platted without zoning restrictions, "created a false market," Kercheval said. "Fortunately, our (Washington County) market is not anywhere near as flooded and we'll be able to rebound from the slump a lot more quickly."

So yes, counties with loose zoning have more property rights, but in this case, property owners have the right to sit around and wait for buyers who never materialize.

And be careful when people start talking about land values and "fairness." Two people may own 50 acres in Washington County. A sewer line happens to built past one parcel, but not the other. Its value skyrockets and the owner sells at great profit, while the other land's value remains static. Is this "fair?" And it was the taxpayers who paid for the sewer line, but the landowner who so greatly profited is unlikely to take his after-tax profit and offer to spread it among the people of the community as a way of saying thanks.

As Kercheval says, part of the land's value is in the land itself, and part of the value is in what the community has made it. Good schools, parks, water and sewer lines, interstate highways giving quick access to the cities - are all taxpayer funded improvements that directly benefit the property owner by increasing his property's value.

And now those property owners are concerned because they believe the county in some way is taking a small measure of this taxpayer-created value back?

And what of the handful of owners who want the right to cash in with big subdivisions? There is a finite amount of water, a finite amount of sewer capacity and a finite number of seats in the schools. Should a relative few be allowed to use all of these resources up for themselves?

A fear campaign has been waged, attempting to scare farmers and people who may wish to split off a couple of lots for their kids or to raise some quick cash.

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