Growth area rezoning to start with residents' input

January 11, 2007

Before their next rezoning effort, the Washington County Commissioners will first form an advisory committee to get citizen input on the process.

That's not how it worked during the rural rezoning process completed in July 2005. Though informational meetings were held around the county, citizen interest didn't peak until it was clear the new zoning would severely restrict development rights.

We favor the new approach, because the year-long process of rezoning the Urban Growth Area around Hagerstown and Town Growth areas around Boonsboro, Hancock and Smithsburg might be just as controversial.

That's because new zoning will not only impact those who own property in the zones, but will also affect the municipalties' ability to grow.


Those governments are not likely to accept a plan they feel doesn't serve their interests.

Washington County and Hagerstown have already been to court on the issue of whether the city could require annexation as a pre-condition to providing some services.

And the Town of Boonsboro acted to annex more than 900 acres in December, in part because a state law that took effect in January gives counties more control over some annexations.

Doing nothing is not an option in this case, because of the provisions of the Chesapeake Bay Initiative. Under that agreement, when existing sewer plants reach their capacities, no expansions will be allowed.

Plants can be renovated so that they do a better job of removing nitrogen and phosphorous from the water that goes back into the local waterways that eventually empty into the bay.

Lack of capacity could stall development in the Urban Growth Area, but while he was still a city councilman, Commissioner Kristen Aleshire raised another concern.

There are many vacant structures in the city that are already hooked up to the city's sewer system. Trying to get people to redevelop them would be tough, Aleshire said, if there were no sewer capacity left.

Merle Elliott, chair of the Washington County Water and Sewer Infrastructure Committee, spoke about the situation last April and said the community must make "priority choices" about how to use a limited resource. Rezoning is one way to make those choices.

In Tuesday's county board meeting, Commissioner James Kercheval raised the possibility that when sewage-treatment plants reach their limits, the state might provide some relief.

Perhaps that will happen, but the legislature passed the so-called "flush tax" to provide grants to upgrade plants and septic systems to improve the bay's water quality. Having taken the heat for the new tax, lawmakers might be reluctant to tell their constituents that they've changed their minds.

The legislature has reversed itself previously - or tried to, in the case of electricity deregulation - but we recommend that all involved in this latest rezoning don't count on a surprise of that kind.

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