What constitutes best and highest use of land?

Comment

November 05, 1995|By MIKE BURNS

IT'S A SMALL BATTLE AS these things go, but a common one, the fight by Harford homeowners to halt the encroachment of development in their neighborhood.

What is distinctive about this dispute, however, is that it reveals a longtime attitude of county officialdom toward what is the best, highest use of land.

This matter-of-fact attitude is not evil or underhanded, simply a judgment of universal belief. To wit, that no residential owner could possibly object to having his land "upgraded" to commercial or industrial zoning.

That's what led to the county rezoning of property along Route 543 near Hickory a few years ago, changing its residential use to the "higher" classification of commercial. But the residents were never notified of the change -- until the corporate landowner next door began plans for development.

The ensuing uproar, and several similar cases, helped to create a better community notification system, which requires that landowners be told of property-use designation changes, so they have time to challenge the action.

The notification system has been changed to prevent this from recurring, even as the Hickory homeowners have been told their upgrading was legal and will likely permit a warehouse operation.

Left unchallenged, however, is the assumption that business activity is the higher, more valuable use of the land. It's a judgment often packaged in such clinquant wrappings as jobs, tax revenues, economic growth, net return to the county.

And while there's growing demand for open space, farmland preservation, parks, greenways, the general assumption is that any land owner would be better off if that site could be used for commercial-industrial purposes.

That's a basic conflict of values that Harford residents have been struggling with for some time.

Twins of development

There is another insistent argument that the highest use of land is to build homes. More people make a stronger county politically and economically. Home construction is a vital economic engine, with powerful ripple effects.

That attitude can lead to growth beyond the capacity of government services, to leapfrog sprawl of development that devours open land, or to compressing people so tightly that all manner of congestion is the result.

While these land-value approaches may seem in apparent conflict, they are both the twins of development; the view that undeveloped land is wasted land. We need homes, we need economic growth. But we also need manageable limits to growth. And some changes in our basic credo about what is the best use of land.

"There is no ethic in dealing with man's relation to land," lamented ecologist-philosopher Aldo Leopold a half-century earlier. "The land relation is still strictly economic, entailing privilege but not obligations." The warning remains relevant.

The virulent NIMBY mentality also prevents an ethical resolution of the difficult ethical issue.

It's not a choice between locking up and freezing existing land uses, or opening all land to the highest financial return. It's a matter of being open to finding the best common good for given pieces of land and areas and communities, without making blind assumptions about such uses.

That may mean leaving areas for gravel pits and stone quarries, and some land as fallow buffer strip until chemical and munitions dangers have been neutralized (to cite two examples of land use controversies in Harford). It may mean more clustering of housing rather than dispersing them over the countryside. It may mean a fire station or a park or a shopping center. Or another landfill. Because a community needs a diversity of functions to thrive.

Just don't assume there is a single highest use that can be applied to all land.

Concern about unbridled growth was the primary factor in the 1990 election for County Council. Concern about hobbled growth was certainly a factor in the 1994 results. That tension will continue to shape the direction of county land use planning. But also needed is an open mind and an open dialogue.

Crabtree's crusade

The crusade of Rommel Crabtree against homebuilder signs along Harford roadways was a protest against illegal, unsightly signs (which police will now remove) but also against the proliferation of development they represent. The homebuilders' reply that the county allowed them to post sales signs because of the industry's unequaled economic importance is a similar broad assumption of right.

In recent years, community input into development decisions has broadened. Development Advisory Committee meetings have been opened to greater public participation, community planning councils have been formed throughout the county, official interpretations of zoning code in private letters are finally seeing prompt public disclosure.

These are signs of more open discussion of the ethics of land use in Harford, which, it is hoped, will continue to blossom.

Mike Burns is The Sun's editorial writer in Harford. Editorials on county topics will continue on the editorial page of The Sun.

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