Where there is and is not good land


February 06, 2000|By MIKE BURNS

Buy land, they're not making any more of it."

That financial advice, attributed to Mark Twain, has been repeated ever since by every hustler of swampland and desert property (and by realty investment counselors).

In fact, we make new land every day, if not in strict geological terms.

The Dutch take national pride in the land created from the seas by dike and dam.

Forests are burned and cleared in tropical rainforests and in woods here at home to create what humans consider "usable" land.

Volcanoes, earthquakes and shifting tides can create what we call more land, just as those forces of nature can swallow up huge swaths of the Earth's surface.

Beyond this philosophical question of what is land, governments are ever creating "new" land with their decisions.

Fallow farm fields are converted to residential subdivisions, property earmarked for industrial development becomes a commercial shopping center. Commercial parcels are turned into housing plots. Building new roads, schools and public facilities creates or takes away land from beneficial use. Public land designated for specific use is sold to private owners.

The immediate concern of Carroll County is its apparent lack of industrial-zoned land to attract new business to the county. Industrial-commercial tenants (unlike residential tenants) pay lots more in taxes than they require in services, a notable benefit to the county treasury.

With an industrial-commercial tax base of 12 percent, lowest in the metro area, Carroll is in dire need of more industrial development to take the tax pressure off homeowners.

County development officials say another 1,000 acres of open industry-zoned land is needed to enhance the prospects of landing new industries.

The proposed overhaul of the land use Master Plan, now being weighed by the county commissioners, recommends only about 250 acres for industrial rezoning. In 1998, the county planning commission rejected as inappropriate seven of nine sites proposed by the Economic Development Commission for industrial rezoning.

Commissioner Donald I. Dell is concerned that expeditious rezoning to meet these changing county needs is not available.

He worries that the county government is unfairly hobbled by a state law (Article 66B) that permits individual parcel rezoning only if a previous mistake in zoning classification was made or if an area's characteristics have significantly changed.

The county's elected commissioners are unable to (or only with difficulty) act to meet the demand for change.

What Mr. Dell overlooks, despite his nine years in the commissioner's office and active participation in the Maryland Association of Counties, is that other counties are using comprehensive rezoning plans.

Comprehensive rezoning is a chance for all manner of zoning changes to be considered by government, countywide. The process takes place every four to six years, so decisions can be evaluated as parts of the whole and not as ad hoc rulings.

Public resources and attention can be focused on the comprehensive process rather than engaged in year-round piecemeal rezoning applications. Carroll has not had a comprehensive rezoning in recent memory.

While other land-use surveys and plans are undertaken by Carroll, it is the comprehensive rezoning process that could facilitate new land designated for industrial development and other beneficial purposes.

A work group of the General Assembly is looking into loosening the counties' rezoning law.

The panel indicates that more flexibility is needed, but not to the extent desired by Mr. Dell. So whatever comes out of the task force won't be of much help to Commissioner Dell in promoting quick rezoning.

But the recent picture of industrial development in Carroll County shows that the new major projects are sited on land that is already zoned for industry or is adjacent to industrial property. It's not a case of some national giant coming in and demanding that isolated productive farmland be converted to a smokestack factory.

The $30 million Random House expansion outside Westminster was justified by its existing operations, the Sweetheart Cup warehouse deal near Hampstead filled an industrial site long occupied by Black & Decker. The Westminster airport business park is growing and can readily justify the proposed industrial rezoning of contiguous acreage.

There are opportunities to attract new industry within the existing legal structure -- if there is a strong will of government to do so. A large inventory of industrial land is not as important as the quality of that land when wooing new business.

Carroll's leaders must face up to planning for future development, instead of reacting to every piecemeal application for zoning changes. A broader view of the county's land use patterns and the adoption of comprehensive rezoning would go a long way toward resolving this problem. Thoughtfully aplied, it could indeed create more land.

Mike Burns is a Sun editorial writer. C. Fraser Smith is on assignment.

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