Group accuses commissioners of pro-developer sympathies

Commissioners members said they see themselves supporting jobs

March 26, 2011|By HEATHER KEELS |

Appointing a developer to the Washington County Planning Commission isn't the only action the current board of Washington County Commissioners has taken that has led to accusations of pro-developer sympathies.

Members of Citizens for the Protection of Washington County say the appointment was among a list of grievances including contributing to the construction of a private office building, removing a doubling provision in the county excise tax ordinance and reinstating a stimulus program for residential construction.

"They claimed they were going to represent everybody, but since they got in there, every single time, it's the developers' wish list," CPWC member Joe Lane said.

"These commissioners are the worst ever and they have been in office for only two months," CPWC President Jim Laird wrote in a Feb. 17 email to the group.

But where critics see the commissioners as supporting developers, commissioners members said they see themselves supporting jobs.

"We're not trying to pave the way for developers," Commissioner William B. McKinley said. "We're trying to pave the way for people that work for the developers to give them a livelihood — plumbers, suppliers, lumber companies."

The new board of commissioners was sworn in Dec. 7.

At their next meeting, Dec. 14, they voted unanimously to approve a $10,000 cash incentive for a professional building to be constructed by Investor Trilogy Enterprises Inc. off Eastern Boulevard.

The funds were to help offset Hagerstown's permit and inspection fees, as an economic development incentive, officials said then. Capital Women's Care, one of the tenants planning to move to the new building, expects to hire 10 more employees within a year of moving in and 20 more within the following three years, said Tim Troxell, executive director of the Hagerstown-Washington County Economic Development Commission.

But Laird and Lane said they didn't think the $10,000 contribution was necessary to bring about those jobs.

"They would have built that building, in my opinion, regardless of whether they got $10,000 from the county or not," Laird said. "It's not like (there was) some bidding war against other counties to bring in a new business."

Then, on Feb. 23, the commissioners voted unanimously to approve an eight-month stimulus program offering excise tax credits toward new homes.

From March 1 through Oct. 31, the county is providing builders with a credit for the excise tax due on up to 3,000 square feet on the construction of homes and residential additions.

Members of the Home Builders Association of Washington County lobbied for the program, saying it would help put builders back to work by making the up-front costs for new homes more affordable.

On March 1, the commissioners voted 4-1 to remove a provision from the county's excise tax ordinance that doubles the excise tax in fast-growing subdivisions. Commissioner Terry Baker voted against that change.

Lane said he saw the commissioners' actions as reversing hard-won provisions that ensure county infrastructure, such as schools, can keep up with growth.

"It's been hard just to get what little we have, and they've pretty much dismantled it all in a month and a half," he said. "I think most people, if they knew what was going on, would oppose it for sure."

Commissioner John F. Barr said he thought the commissioners' actions were appropriate for the current economic "season."

"We're in a whole different element than we were just five or six years ago," Barr said. "We've got rampant unemployment — it's supposedly documented at 10 percent, but I can tell you in the construction industry it's also documented that it's closer to 20 percent."

Commissioner Ruth Anne Callaham also spoke of high unemployment in the construction trades and said she thought actions like the excise tax credits were a way to bring about "controlled stimulation" of home construction.

"We're not catering to any one group at all," she said. "We're taking things in queue, if you will, and applying, again, good solid business practices to generate jobs, and we'll generate any kind of jobs that we can find for our community."

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