Stating the state of Carroll County


January 21, 2001|By MIKE BURNS

THE CARROLL county commissioners had their annual say on the State of the County, entertaining the Chamber of Commerce with their views of what has been done and what remains to be accomplished.

Punctuated with prayers and 4-H homilies and cowgirl cheers, the trio assured the audience at Martin's of Westminster last week that this was the best of times for Carroll County.

There was even the hint of a cut in the property tax rate from Commissioner Robin Frazier, who this month told financially strapped agencies helping the disabled that they didn't deserve a county grant.

And just so folks wouldn't get too concerned that things were actually changing in Carroll County, Commissioner Donald Dell bragged that the new county land-use Master Plan had the same goals as the one adopted nearly four decades earlier.

No one ventured to ask him why those longstanding goals have been dodged and ignored for decades.

This year's assessment was significant because it marks the halfway point in the four-year terms of the three commissioners.

It's a point when the county's governmental leaders have had sufficient time to actually do something, rather than predict and promise.

Not to worry. The trio had nothing but good news to share. Lots of water, lots of schools, lots of state money, lots of preserved farmland, lots of happy businesses. A brand new Master Plan for land use, and a school board that is learning to live within its budget.

And yet, this county is still struggling with the same growth problems, the same clogged roads and water shortages, the strains on emergency services, that it has had for years.

Growth has not been stayed, or even managed, despite an interim growth moratorium and the much-ballyhooed "concurrency" development law, which is supposed to allow new housing only in proportion to the availability of public facilities and services.

The promise of industrial development to help ease the residential property tax burden remains just that, a promise. Incremental increases in the business/industrial tax base keep the county from sliding backward.

But Carroll is still the metro county with the lowest percentage of industrial tax base.

It was curious that the commissioners stressed their impact on local businesses. Ms. Frazier cited "outreach" visits to 50 local firms over the past year, which helped to keep three businesses from abandoning Carroll.

That's certainly important, but it doesn't speak to the need to increase the industrial base.

Commissioner Julia Gouge mentioned the shortage of suitable industrial-zoned property in Carroll County to pitch to businesses eager to locate (or relocate) here.

Her plan seems to be rezoning more farmland to industrial, which would increase property values and encourage more owners to sell. But then what?

While the economic development game is often played with CIA-level secrecy and intrigue, it has yet to be proved that the county has failed to land a major catch primarily because it didn't have enough acreage to wave in front of the potential client.

Still, county officials insist that industrial growth must occur in the Liberty Reservoir watershed, that land designated to protect the quality of water for 1.8 million metro customers is the only land suitable for industrial development in Carroll.

That provoked a head-on conflict with Baltimore City and Baltimore County, both of which want the land protected. The city, therefore, refuses to allow the county to increase its draw of drinking water from the reservoir.

And so the county chooses to develop Piney Run Lake for water supply instead. But that treatment plant and system will take years to build.

One reason Carroll has a paucity of desirable industrial land is that the county has regularly allowed such land (as legally permitted) to be used for commercial development. Despite this pattern, the commissioners have yet to restrict development on such properties to industry-only.

If Carroll continues its aimless development toward becoming strictly a bedroom community, with housing replacing farm crops and livestock, property taxes will have to be raised. There's no getting around it.

Yes, schools have been built to meet population growth in recent years. That's a positive step.

Trouble is, they haven't always been placed where they are most needed. Yet the financial commitment to staff and use them continues. And county taxpayers will have to foot the full cost of two of these new structures because the state says their need isn't justified.

The county recognized the need for better planning to match facilities with growth, the need to set long-terms goals for development. A comprehensive overhaul of the 1964 Master Plan was undertaken four years ago. The finished document set goals and priorities and strategies to achieve them.

The current commissioners then ordered the plan to be watered down and rewritten, with a mix of sometimes conflicting goals. The strategies were also removed. It's a plan without a vision, a minimum requirement under state law, certainly nothing to celebrate.

This is the state of Carroll County in the year 2001. Now what about that property tax cut?

Mike Burns writes editorials for The Sun from Carroll County.

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