Fight for the rural north Baltimore County: Rezoning ruling must be based on public interests, not private ones.

September 11, 1996

AS BALTIMORE COUNTY'S quadrennial rezoning process nears its end, County Council members -- who make the final decision on zoning requests -- must not lose sight of the purpose of zoning. Zoning exists to control the landscape. It is a tool for making sure the right kind of development occurs in the right places at the right time; for protecting the environment and other resources; for fulfilling a vision, as agreed upon by the public and its elected leaders, of what a place should look like years hence.

The most controversial rezoning request facing the Baltimore County Council today -- the downzoning of 12,000 acres in the rural north from one house per five acres to one house per 50 acres -- meets the above criteria. The county's historic discouragement of development in these areas has not changed. Indeed, it has become more acute as the market for homes in ever more remote areas has grown. The county wants the more restrictive zoning to protect watersheds, preserve agricultural area and because the county cannot afford to extend services there. In terms of land-use policy, downzoning in the north makes sense.

Landowners affected by this zoning change are very opposed, fearing it will erode their property values and take away a source of security some have been banking upon for years. A study by the Valleys Planning Council, which found the most tightly zoned property actually brought higher prices, has not allayed those fears, partly because VPC supports the downzoning.

While one must empathize with those who may lose as a result of this rezoning, the constitutional right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness does not include guaranteed property values. Like any other profit-making venture, real estate entails risks. One of those risks is that the government will change how land can be used, or otherwise affect its value. Sometimes that works in a landowner's favor, in which case no one expects individuals to compensate the government for their increased profits. Sometimes, it works the other way.

This is not to say the council should not consider individual bTC circumstances. As a general rule, however, it must make land-use decisions based on what is best public policy, not on what is most profitable for private property owners.

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