Rural communities throughout Maryland are facing more than mere growing pains from an increase in population. According to state officials, some areas are growing at a rate faster than the land's resources can afford. Last week, Washington County took measures to prevent such a trend from happening on its soil.
The county's permits and inspections office has tracked the evidence of the county's growth. From 1990 to 2000, the town of Smithsburg's population surged 76 percent. Nearby Boonsboro's rose 15 percent. Last year, there was a 36 percent increase in building permits for frame houses in Washington County.
To help protect the county's land and ground water use, and to deter overdevelopment, county commissioners voted 3-2 to halt the spread of large residential developments for up to a year.
"Three or four years ago, we started a process to revise our comprehensive plan, through many meetings throughout the county and taking citizens' input into account," explained Rodney Shoop of the Washington County Board of Commissioners.
In August, the county commission adopted the revised comprehensive plan, which reduces housing development allowance in agriculturally zoned areas of the county from one residential unit per acre to one residential unit per 5 acres.
"The next step is for all zoning ordinances to be revised to reflect the comp plan," said Shoop. "That process takes at least a year."
In the meantime, Shoop said, the commission was concerned that an influx of developers might purchase farmland and submit large subdivisions, "to get it on the books before the zoning ordinances take effect."
Another concern: The majority of the county's agriculturally zoned areas are on wells and septic systems. Additional development of wells could impact the ground water and significantly reduce it during drought conditions. "Coupling all of that together, and having some strong input from citizens and citizens groups in the community, the commission decided to present an ordinance for the moratorium to the public," said Shoop.
The commission held a public hearing last month before making its final decision Tuesday.
Response to the proposed moratorium was evenly divided between support from residents and opposition from local developers, Realtors and homebuilders' associations.
The moratorium requires that any submittal creating a subdivision of more than five lots will not be accepted and will be on hold until the moratorium is lifted. The commission plans to review the issue in six months.
Washington County is not the first to adopt such measures. The city of Frederick is in a moratorium over similar water supply concerns.
State agencies have applauded Washington County's decision to protect its rural communities from overdevelopment. The secretary for the Maryland Department of Planning testified in favor of the comprehensive plan, and Smart Growth, a state agency charged with aiding in sustainable development of local communities, recently gave the county a Rural Legacy award.
"We withheld money specifically for Washington County, because they were in the process of making a decision whether they were going to down-zone in their agricultural areas and whether they were going to try to slow the rate of development happening in their protected lands," explained Harriet Tregoning, secretary of Smart Growth. "When they made a decision to do that, we were able to reward them with Legacy dollars."
On the flip side, Smart Growth recently withheld funds from St. Mary's County, where the commission failed to aggressively down-zone, despite tremendous development in areas designated for protection, according to Tregoning.
"In these times of budget deficits and fiscal constraints, if the taxpayers of Maryland charge us to protect farmland or open space, we really need to turn to local governments to be good partners in that," she said.
"There is a difference of thousands of dollars between a Howard County and a Baltimore County in terms of purchasing an easement to protect an acre of agricultural land or forest land, because Baltimore County has very protective rural zoning, and Howard County does not. So, the development pressure bids up the price for the easement, and we have to pay several times more for an equivalent acre.
"We really have to be diligent in encouraging our local governments to be the best possible partner, so a dollar spent to preserve ag land has the same impact in every county."
Washington County, she said, has taken a major step toward that goal.