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Newcomers don't cause our troubles

March 25, 2007|by BOB MAGINNIS

Thirty years ago, when I was a young reporter, it was obvious to many Washington County residents I spoke to that I wasn't a native. Those who were curious about where I came from had two ways of asking about it.

Those who were happy with what I was writing would ask, "So where are you from originally?"

Those who were unhappy were a bit more blunt, saying "You're not from around here, are you?"

I'm hearing some of that again, though it's not being directed at me, but at the newcomers who are said to be driving up housing prices and property tax assessments by purchasing homes here at prices many Washington Countians can't afford.

Other criticism is being directed at recent arrivals such as Gordon and Janet Bartels, who joined the fight against granting a zoning variance to allow Washington County Hospital to move to the Robinwood area.

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Let me suggest that targeting such people for negative attention is wrong, for a number of reasons, including the American tradition of the melting pot, in which each new resident adds something good to the stew.

But more important, if we scapegoat those who haven't been here all that long, we absolve long-time residents who didn't see these problems coming, or decided that it wasn't their job to solve them.

For example, when people from outside the area began buying up downtown Hagerstown properties, a longtime local resident said he was concerned about what the "outsiders" would do.

Probably more than some local owners have done in the last 30 years, I said.

On the issue of affordable housing, over the years every time something such as impact fees was proposed, the builders' trade group would claim such charges would make housing unaffordable for many. And so fees were put on hold until it was impossible to do without the revenue needed for schools, roads and other services.

Did the foes of fees use the intervening time to produce a plan for affordable housing? If so, it's a mighty well-kept secret. Washington County government had a task force look at the issue in 2005, but although it offered 17 recommendations, (including a proposed revision of the much-tinkered-with excise tax) it does not appear to have produced much more affordable housing.

On the hospital issue, the record is full of instances in which Washington County natives failed to get the job done. Did county-born residents of the hospital board try to convince CEO James Hamill that allowing his differences with then-Mayor William Breichner to become personal wasn't helping? Can't prove it by me.

Did members of Washington County's General Assembly delegation and the Washington County Commissioners try to mediate the dispute between the city and the hospital?

No. For the most part they sat on the sidelines in what seemed to be an effort to avoiding offending either side.

The current effort by some elected officials to get the remaining five appellants to withdraw is so weak it appears that they're just going through the motions so that when the train wreck happens they can claim they were out on the track waving a signal flag.

Del. John Donoghue's bill, filed late, will have to go through a committee hearing in which he must argue that limiting a citizen's right to appeal is a good thing. The trial lawyers in Annapolis have already succeeded in stopping malpractice reform, so what makes anyone believe they will OK a bill that could make it harder to litigate?

And finally, consider the Bartels, who have been criticized for being newcomers who intervened in the hospital issue though they don't even live in the Robinwood area.

In Saturday's Herald-Mail, one letter-writer said that "I'm shocked that a few 'newcomers' to our community, arriving on the scene after the project was already announced, most not living in the Robinwood area, and armed only with a $115 filing fee can stop improvements in advanced medical care that affect all of us, while having no risks to themselves for taking these actions."

And who was this indignant correspondent? J. Michael Nye, who until recently was one of the hospital appellants and, whose letter says he has been a county resident for almost 60 years. Having led the effort to appeal the zoning variance, he is now upset because the Bartels and others don't share his opinion that it's time to throw in the towel.

Why would any recent arrival join in any good cause if they knew that the finger would be pointed at them if things went sour? They wouldn't. And if those of us who have been here awhile tolerate this scapegoating, we will deny this county any contributions the newcomers have to give.

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