Downzoning facts to consider
Neither the Charles County Board of Commissioners (BOCC) nor the Charles County Planning Commission (PC) produced the draft Zoning Text Amendment (ZTA) developed by county staff. The public hearings were held to solicit public input on the draft ZTA implementation details that are not specified in the Comprehensive Plan.
In particular, the plan provides for the downzoning of land in the Watershed Conservation District (WCD) to a density of 1:20, as recommended in various documents written by experts in land use and environmental stewardship. Case law universally upholds the authority of local government to downzone land without compensating the landowner for the loss of development potential (see “Abrams, Guide to Maryland Zoning Decisions.”) According to Abrams and substantiated by an extensive internet search, downzoning is not a “taking” requiring compensation as long as the action is done in the public interest and leaves the property owner with some remaining use of his or her land. Eminent domain, however, is an action that takes the land for public use and deprives the property owner of any use.
Downzoning and tables of use restrictions alone do not warrant an eminent domain action. However, most jurisdictions where downzoning and land conservation have worked well ensure that the property owner retains options to recoup some of the potential loss of value through an array of programs. Universally, transfer of development rights, purchase of development rights and conservation easements have been the most effective tools for achieving this goal — but lobbyists for the development industry in Charles County have always opposed such programs, and attempts to make them more effective have never matured. While these programs are normally implemented prior to downzoning, it seems reasonable that Charles could come up to speed as other jurisdictions have done.
Residential housing universally demands more in public expenditures than it produces in tax revenue, leaving the existing taxpayers to shoulder the deficit for new housing along with existing burdens. Attempts to fund this new deficit via excise taxes in Charles County have driven the tax to $13,000 per house just to help cover the school costs, leaving other infrastructure deficits entirely on the taxpayers. Houses in rural areas where adequate infrastructure doesn’t already exist generate a larger deficit than houses near the necessary infrastructure. Contrary to popular lore, keeping sprawl out of rural areas like the Watershed Conservation District is expected to reduce taxes — not increase them. The WCD would actually lower property taxes on Charles County citizens already burdened with the highest tax rate of any county in Maryland.
Be sure to submit your comments on the ZTA to the PC prior to Feb. 13. They can’t change the ZTA but they can ensure that your comments get included with their recommendations to the BOCC. The ZTA is far from perfect, but more careless unfounded political rhetoric isn’t going to make it better.
Ken Hastings, Mechanicsville