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What will Boonsboro valley look like in 2010?

January 10, 2007|by BOB MAGINNIS

Thirty years ago I lived in an apartment in one side of an old stone farmhouse at Kline's Mill, not far from Boonsboro.

I lived alone then and sometimes instead of going straight home after work, I would drive up to Washington Monument State Park just before it closed at dusk.

I would climb the old stone monument's steep stairs, then look across the valley below, just as the lights of the houses below and the cars on the road began to come on.

Depending on the time of year, sometimes there would be hawks soaring silently above a valley that seemed to have changed little since the monument was built in 1827.

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Within the next five years, there is a good chance that the valley below will change substantially.

That's due in large part to a series of annexations approved in December by the Boonsboro Town Council.

In all, the nine parcels the council agreed to annex total more than 900 acres and will almost double the size of the town.

Whether this development is a mess or the orderly expansion of an historic town depends on how well town officials and the Washington County Commissioners can work together.

But first this must be said: No matter how much anyone wanted Boonsboro to stay "the way it always was," change was inevitable.

The first reason was the Interstate 70 interchange at Md. 66, which allowed commuters to live in the country and work in the city. When home prices soared in Frederick County, Boonsboro and Smithsburg were the next stops for house-shopping bargain hunters.

Smithsburg has seen growth as a result, but its town center is much farther from the exit.

Boonsboro also faces a mandate to upgrade its sewer plant as part of the Chesapeake Bay Initiative. The state has committed $3.5 million in loans and grants, but the first round of bids for the work topped $13 million.

Town officials are sending the project back out for new bids, but even if those come in at around $9 million, other cash will have to be found.

That's where the developers come in. By annexing, their projects are eligible for municipal water and sewer service and the hookup fees - $11,000 per home for sewer - will provide the cash needed to pay for the upgrade.

Maryland's so-called "flush tax" was supposed to fund such projects, but according to Derek Meyers, the town's planner, "We got some money, but it wasn't enough."

Under the agreements reached with the developers, no construction can begin until the upgrade is complete in 2008, but there's another hurdle the town faces.

The county commissioners must give the project "express approval" or else the developers' post-annexation plans get put on hold for the next five years.

Meyers said that the property could still be developed under existing agricultural zoning, which allows for one house per acre with a well and septic system.

That's an outcome no one really wants. Some areas of Boonsboro have already experienced contamination of wells, probably from septic systems. And annexation is a whole lot more difficult when a municipality has to try to get a whole bunch of property owners to agree to it.

Without the commissioners' express approval, Boonsboro likely would miss the 2010 deadline to upgrade the plant and future opportunities for annexation could be lost. And, according to Meyers, the town would have to deal with growth on its perimeter that it couldn't control, but would be called on to provide some services for, such as fire protection.

So what happens next?

On Dec. 12, the commissioners put off their "express approval" vote, with Commissioners Jim Kercheval and Kristin Aleshire saying they wanted to know more about how the plan would affect basic services, including schools.

What they're seeking is a more detailed "extension of services report," which would outline development's likely effects on schools, police protection, etc. Once that happens, then the elected officials can agree on how quickly development can occur, so services aren't overwhelmed.

Cooperation is in everyone's best interests, because, as the disagreements between the City of Hagerstown and Washington County proved, it is possible to waste a lot of time and money seeking the upper hand, when what's needed is for both sides to work hand in hand.

Bob Maginnis is editorial page editor of The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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