Talking points for sprawl bill
On Dec. 11, 2013 three of the seven Worcester County Commissioners voted to introduce a bill to increase the number of allowable lots on agriculturally zoned land (about 85% of the county) from five lots to seven lots, effectively increasing the amount of allowable growth on our farms and forestland by 40%.
1) Send letters to the commissioners at http://www.co.worcester.md.us/commissioners/comm.aspx
Click on To contact all County Commissioners to send your letter
Phone calls to your commissioner are also important. You can find their number at the link above.
2) Attend a hearing on this bill scheduled for Feb. 19 at the county administration building in Snow Hill at 11 a.m.
In 2009 the county finished a four-year comprehensive planning and rezoning process led by professional planners. It included numerous public meetings and hearings which allowed county residents to reach consensus on how and where they wanted growth.
Citizens looked at zoning’s effects on road maintenance, schools, and emergency services and used census data to come up with a plan that would keep the county’s taxes near the lowest in the state, protect citizens from natural disasters, and protect the wildlife and water quality that keep Worcester County’s tourism and agricultural economies viable.
The research also showed that fragmentation of parcels is one of the biggest threats to farming and forestry.
When the four years of work was done, county farmers, developers, fishermen, professional planners and other residents created new growth areas, developed a new agricultural district (A-2) to give property owners more options, and upzoned hundreds of acres to allow for even more development. It is a consensus-based middleground that is fair to both taxpayers and property owners and projects growth out 20 years.
The public and planning staff took great pains to make sure transportation, wildlife, bay health, and public safety were top priorities in the county’s comprehensive plan and rezoning.
Now some of the Worcester County Commissioners have decided to disregard years of consensus building and carefully planned growth to allow development all over Worcester County’s pristine farms and woodlands.
On average, for every dollar levied in taxes, sprawl development costs taxpayers $1.15-$1.60, while land in agriculture and forestry demand only about 33-49 cents in services. When comparing tax rates and populace by county around the state, that’s easy to see. Examples of the effects of unchecked development on taxes abound from Glen Burnie to Wicomico County.
Before acting, the Worcester County Commissioners need a study on the effects of this upzoning:
· What is the burden on schools and bus service?
· What is the burden on emergency services?
· What is the burden on road maintenance?
· What is the tax burden?
The move to go to more lots on agricultural land is being done under the guise of protecting farmers.
· To protect farming we need to grow crops, not houses. Taking farmland out of production to build houses does not help agriculture. Allowing farmers to sell lots on the western shore certainly hasn’t saved farming there.
· Fragmentation from land subdivision is the biggest threat to farming and forestry.
· What percentage of farmland is rented by farmers rather than owned by farmers?
· The vast majority of people who live in agriculturally zoned land aren’t farmers. According to the 2000 Census data 2% of Worcester County residents are farmers, foresters or make their living from fishing.
· When farmers sell their land in Worcester it’s usually to other farmers or those who rent to farmers. With seven-lot zoning the only ones who will be able to buy farms are developers. How does that save farmland?
· Some commissioners are substantiating the maneuver by claiming farmers need seven lots to keep families on their land. We need research on how many farms have members of the entire family living on five lots right now.
· The move would have a serious impact on how and where people hunt in the county.
· The state could reject our agricultural preservation certification and Rural Legacy funding if the county makes the backward slide.
· Accessory structures (houses) already permitted in the code actually allow 10 dwelling units in the A-1 district. This will make it 14.
· The change to seven lots would make it nearly impossible for the county to meet its water quality goals for the Coastal Bays and Chesapeake. Along with agriculture, clean bays and beaches are the lifeblood of the county’s tourism economy.
· Septic system pollution is a much bigger problem per acre than nutrient inputs from agriculture. The change would allow thousands more septic systems in the bays behind Ocean City and Assateague resulting in hundreds of thousands of pounds of more nutrient pollution from human excrement.
· Meanwhile, Worcester County has spent hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars every year to get existing septic systems off line.
· Worcester County looks different than Wicomico County and Sussex County and boasts higher land values due to its advanced zoning. This zoning has allowed for plenty of growth in Worcester County over the past 45 years.
· The amount of acreage placed in existing growth areas already exceeds what’s needed for the projected 18,000-person increase in county population over the next two decades.
· According to Worcester County, total lots in ag zone is 5,424 at 5-lot zoning, and 7,268 at 7 lots (1,844 more lots). That’s assuming anyone under 10 acres won’t subdivide. That assumption is flawed. At 2000 more lots at 23 lbs/system the coastal bays and Chesapeake are looking at 46,000 more pounds of nitrogen annually.
· The bill arbitrarily aims to increase the property value of few while simultaneously raising taxes and devaluing the property values of everyone else.
Elected officials should serve to do what’s best for their community, not certain individuals or other special interests. However much quick profits and individual property owners come into play, the Worcester County Commissioners have a moral and political obligation to stick to the core planning principles in the comprehensive rezoning for the common good and future health of their community.
By law, the commissioners are obliged to follow the comp plan which states about the Ag Zone: “Residential and other conflicting land uses although permitted are discouraged. Only minor subdivisions of five lots or less are permitted. This restriction has been the strongest component of the county’s agricultural preservation strategy, and it should be maintained as is. Also as a general policy, the practice of not rezoning agricultural land for other uses should continue.”
Planning and zoning are the key factors in determining the future economic and environmental health of towns and counties. Without proper planning, all of our rights to clean bays and rivers, lower taxes, and public safety are diminished.
For those who say strong agricultural zoning is war on rural Maryland, the reality is quite the opposite. It is perhaps the only thing that can save it.