New zoning plan faces tough test

Herald-Mall Online


Washington County, MD - If Washington County's proposed comprehensive zoning is defeated, it won't be the developers who do it in, but local property owners who've "banked" their land to provide home sites for their children or security against old age or catastrophic illness.

Those folks came out in force Monday night, packing Hagerstown Community College's Kepler Theater to denounce the zoning designed to back up the updated comprehensive plan.

In the hearing's first two hours, only one supporter of the plan spoke. For her trouble Henryetta "Hank" Livelsberger was booed, for which the crowd was scolded by Commissioners' President Greg Snook, who said the hearing would be shut down if the disturbance continued.

Snook needn't have worried. Speaker after speaker ripped into the plan to increase the amount of land required to build a house, many to thunderous applause. Many called on the county to revisit the idea with a task force made up of property owners and others who have a stake in the outcome.

Most argued for the county to be fair to those who'd done their retirement planning anticipating that they'd be able to sell off a few lots if they had to. A few farmers argued that the loss of equity would leave them unable to borrow for new equipment or to send their children to college. And several real estate appraisers testified that the loss of value due to zoning changes would be real.

There were some truly touching moments during the testimony. Chuck Ernst, chairman of the Citizens to Protect Rights, choked up as he talked about the generations of his family that had worked his land.

Ernst, who has said from the start that he's willing to work on a compromise, probably surprised a few in CPR by saying that if the county had merely doubled the amount of land required to build - from one acre to two on agricultural land, for example - it still would have been wrong, but most would have gone along.

Judging by Monday night's testimony, it's the many people who have smaller parcels of five, seven or 10 acres who can't accept the idea that they would lose their right to sell off any lots.

But although Ernst said that supporters of the new zoning plan had good intentions, he said that when it comes right down to it, "they want control of land they don't have title to."

The zoning proposal, Ernst said, favors newcomers to the county instead of those who have worked the land. It was a theme repeated again and again, as speakers said their children would be forced out of the county because they wouldn't be able to afford building lots.

That message - that it's the newcomers who want to control what the natives do with the land - was articulated several times. One farmer who talked about how he'd worked hard for years to build his dairy farm, milking his cows for years by hand, complained that what local landowners were doing was "baby-sitting" for city folks.

They work in the city, he said, then retire and "bring their fortune up here" to buy a 20-acre hideaway, squeezing out the "Washington County kids."

Thankfully, no one repeated the argument made in newspaper ads that there's something wrong with the Urban Growth Area concept, which encourages higher-density growth in areas where there's municipal water and sewer available.

But neither did anyone address how the county should cover the costs of rural residential development, which doesn't yield enough in taxes to cover the services, like schools, that it requires. Tom Berry, a former School Board member, even argued that those who object to the zoning plan had no obligation to offer an alternative, since what they're objecting to amounts to robbery.

My prediction: The commissioners won't throw this proposal out entirely, because even though Gov. Robert Ehrlich is not the "Smart Growth" advocate Gov. Parris Glendening was, he still knows that the state can't afford to help finance unlimited sprawl development.

There may be a task force, but whatever it recommends, the elected officials will modify the plan to allow those with smaller tracts to develop more lots.

But I also believe large-scale rural developments will be more tightly controlled, as suggested recently by former Commissioner John Schnebly, to force the developers to take a continuing role in provision of water and waste-disposal services - or pay the county to do so for them.

In that way, development would occur in small increments, the school system would have time to adjust to an increasing student population and local builders, as opposed to big outfits from the metro areas, would get most of the work.

We might even see a proposal for affordable housing, although I have a suspicion that those who back that idea want someone else to make the necessary financial sacrifices. I may be wrong on that and if so, I apologize. But I sincerely doubt if I'm wrong about what effect the hundreds who attended Monday night's hearing will have on the zoning proposal.


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