Ignore thy neighbor: Consider the possibilities

COMMENT

November 15, 1998|By Mike Burns

THE ELECTION results helped clear up some important questions about the future of Carroll County. With campaign platitudes and perorations pushed aside, the candidates felt at last free to express themselves.

The discussion in last week's column about business left unfinished by the Board of County Commissioners indicated how the new commissioners might undertake these tasks.

Now we have it straight from the horse's mouth, from three-term Commissioner Donald I. Dell, that the main problem of planning and growth lies in the unreasonable expectations of newcomers to Carroll County.

"People moving here don't really understand what property rights are all about," the 73-year-old retired dairy farmer told a Sun reporter. "They have a feeling that whatever they see out their window should never be changed.

"My feeling is, it's none of their business what their neighbor does with his land."

Isn't that precious? No biblical injunction to love your neighbor and refrain from coveting his possessions, but the commandment to simply ignore him.

Mr. Dell is a lifelong farmer in Carroll, like his ancestors going back two centuries. He's got a modest 400 acres outside Westminster. Like many farmers, he's under pressure from residents in new subdivisions to change farming's ways to meet their desires: less smell and nighttime noise, for example. That naturally rubs him the wrong way, both as an individual and as a political philosopher. With the vast majority of Carroll land zoned for agriculture, he may well speak for the geographical majority. But I wonder what would happen if his neighbors (or neighbors to be) adopted his attitude toward the sanctity of property rights.

One man's property rights

They might dig a lot of single-home wells that would lower his farm's water table. They might party into the night and disturb animal behavior. They might spread chemical pesticides and fertilizer on their suburban lawns and watch it wash into nearby farm streams. Or build a private airport in the back yard.

There are, of course, community laws that restrict land uses and abuses of the public welfare. They would undoubtedly prevent such harmful practices on land neighboring Mr. Dell's. And that's what we expect of government, to moderate and oversee the changes we see happening outside our windows.

Four years ago, Mr. Dell promised voters to "keep it country." While some saw the slogan as supporting government payments to preserve farmland in Carroll, others considered it a conservative credo to stop change from happening outside their windows.

Experience shows that it was not the latter meaning that Mr. Dell intended to convey. Significant residential growth and change occurred in spite of several restrictive laws. Pressures for that change weren't limited to homebuilders, either. Numbers of farmers complained that their land rights were unfairly abridged, by law and by administrative rules. Essentially, they wanted to build houses on cropland, and it was nobody's business if they did.

Lower tax rate

Was it the neighbors' business that those farmers got a lower property tax rate for the agricultural acreage than did the residential property taxpayers? If landowners are invested with every right to use their property as they wish, aren't they obligated to pay equal tax rates? Fact is, the public and its government set different, lower tax rates for farms, expecting that the land is used for a specific, different purpose.

(Some will argue, correctly, that a field of corn demands much less in public services and facilities than a field of townhouses. But if that were the basis for setting tax rates, the business/industrial rate would be far lower because those concerns pay in more than they receive in services.)

The point is that it is the neighbors' business to look at what's happening outside their windows. It's their business to see that laws for the commonweal are enforced. It's their business to demand that tax rates be set equitably, based on certain expectations of continuing land use. It's their business to see that changes are in keeping with the county's land-use plans.

No one's arguing for a perpetual freeze of existing structures and land use and population levels. Changes will occur. But it is our business, and just not the singular decision of a landowner declaring his inalienable property rights.

There's a broadly recognized need for more industry, more decent-paying, lasting jobs in Carroll. That's part of the change that is necessary for the county to reduce its overwhelming dependence on residential taxes (income and property) to support the budget. It must be encouraged, but not without public attention to the changes it will bring.

This is not to single out Mr. Dell, but to remind him and others in office that the public has a fundamental obligation to be alert to changes and to question their justification. Keep looking out your windows.

Mike Burns is The Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

Pub Date: 11/15/98

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