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Will county get its share under state's new plan?

July 08, 2008

Say what you want about $4-a-gallon gasoline, but there's one thing that it has accomplished. It has vindicated the controversial rural rezoning plan passed in 2005.

The plan essentially limited the number of lots that could be developed, especially in agricultural areas, where the old rule was one house per acre.

If the Washington County Commissioners' vote hadn't reduced property values, then $4-a-gallon gasoline surely would have. Judging by the number of houses sitting unsold, being offered as rentals or going to auction, it already has.

The difference is that all the houses that might have been built in rural areas between then and now weren't built. That means lower costs for schools and infrastructure for the existing taxpayers, already experiencing pain at the gas pumps.

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Since the rezoning vote, the State of Maryland also announced that because of the Chesapeake Bay Initiative, it was capping sewer plant capacity.

No more enlarging the plant when the capacity runs out. Instead, local governments can only increase capacity by improving the treatment process, so the updated plant doesn't produce any more "nutrients" than it did previously.

(Nutrients are a byproduct of the treatment process. They feed algae that cloud the bay's water and inhibit the growth of underwater grasses that allow young fish to hide.)

And here's the kicker: Officials say plants are so efficient now that until there is a technological breakthrough, not much can be done.

Except, of course, to impose more controls. On Saturday, The Washington Post reported that Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley's administration has been quietly developing a new statewide land-use plan.

The story quoted Richard Eberhart Hall, the state's planning chief, as saying that although the state has mapped out so-called "smart-growth" areas, growth hasn't always gone to those places.

Hall said the state's proposal is not to dictate what local development will be, but to establish guidelines to direct growth to where the services are.

And if the guidelines don't produce the desired results? Incentives could work, but it's more likely that state funding will be withheld from those areas that don't go along with the plan.

For an area such as Washington County, which needs millions of dollars worth of infrastructure upgrades, it was difficult to get state cash even when the economy was rolling along.

There is a task force that is developing the plan, but the list on the Maryland Department of Planning Web site doesn't include any Washington County members.

It would be an unpleasant surprise indeed if the majority of the smart-growth incentives went elsewhere because Washington County didn't speak loudly enough in asking for its fair share.

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

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