Down­zon­ing facts to con­sider

Maryland Independent - - Community Forum -

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

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