Worcester County residents should take a hard look at the tax, wildlife, and water quality ramifications of a county bill that would effectively increase the amount of allowable growth on our farms and forestland by 40 percent.
Proposed by a few of the Worcester County Commissioners in December, the bill aims to increase the number of housing lots on agricultural and resource protection-zoned land (about 89% of Worcester County) from five lots to seven.
While the reasoning behind the increase is well-intentioned (to give farmers more lots to sell for development) the outcome will not only have a deleterious effect on agriculture in Worcester County, but will also increase the tax burden on existing property owners. This, combined with the serious impacts to water quality and wildlife, render the idea a bad one.
To employ a graceful exit strategy from this diversion, the county could help real farm families by creating interfamily transfers to keep farm families on the farm. With less than 2 percent of Worcester County residents being farmers, it makes little sense to take land out of production by sprawling larger subdivisions all over our farms and forestlands, especially when so many farmers rent land. To protect farming we need to grow crops, not houses. Fragmentation from land subdivision is the biggest threat to farming and forestry.
County residents and professional planners were aware of this when they wrote about agricultural zoning in Worcester County’s Comprehensive Plan, “Only minor subdivisions of five lots or less are permitted. This restriction has been the strongest component of the county’s agricultural preservation strategy, and it should be maintained as is.”
This is why it seemed odd that during a Jan. 17 work session on the issue, the Worcester County Planning Commission didn’t even look at the comp plan (their primary charter) when making a hurried recommendation to go to seven lots.
From 2005-2009, the public and planning staff used painstaking detail in making sure schools, public safety, transportation, and bay health, were top priorities in the county’s comprehensive plan and rezoning. They prescribed growth away from flood plains, forests and near existing infrastructure, and upzoned thousands of acres to allow for even more development. A new agricultural district (A-2) gave property owners more options.
After four years of painstaking work by professional planners and input by hundreds of citizens to create Worcester’s updated comprehensive plan and zoning code, it seems hasty to push through such a move with little examination of the ramification on county taxes, water quality, and wildlife. Such a radical change of course for one of Maryland’s most beautiful and biologically diverse counties should be more than just an afterthought.
Before acting, the Worcester County Commissioners should study on the effects of this upzoning. On average, in Maryland for every dollar levied in taxes, sprawl development costs taxpayers $1.15-$1.60, while land in agriculture and forestry demand only about 33-49 cents in services. For decades through forward-thinking planning and zoning, Worcester has boasted the lowest income tax rate and the second lowest property tax rate in Maryland. Examples of the effects of unchecked development on taxes abound from Glen Burnie to Wicomico County.
Moreover, an increase in development by 40 percent would render it impossible to reach our water quality goals for the bays which are the foundation of our tourism and agricultural economy. Septic system pollution is a much bigger problem per acre than nutrient inputs from agriculture. Over the past five years, Worcester County has spent hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars every year to get existing septic systems off line.
It would be counterproductive to indiscriminately allow an estimated 2,000 more septic systems to pump hundreds of thousands of additional pounds of nutrients from human excrement into the bays behind Ocean City and Assateague.
Along with preserving agriculture, the loss of biodiversity and decline in water quality from unchecked growth in Maryland is staggering. The steep decline in bobwhite quail, meadowlarks, American woodcock, and scores of other species of birds, amphibians, plants, and mammals are linked directly to suburban sprawl.
However much quick profits and individual property owners come into play, the Worcester County Commissioners have a moral and political obligation to stick to the core planning principles in the comprehensive rezoning for the common good and future health of their community.
The days when lax zoning arbitrarily increased the property value for a few while simultaneously raising taxes and devaluing the property values of everyone else should be over.
Planning and zoning are the key factors in determining the future economic and environmental health of towns and counties. Without proper planning, all of our rights to clean bays and rivers, lower taxes, and public safety are diminished.
The best way to reduce the size of government and keep taxes low is to espouse planning that reduces sprawl, protects natural resources, and limits damage and loss of life from natural disasters.
For this reason, county residents should contact their commissioners or voice their concerns at a public hearing on the matter Feb. 19 at 11 a.m. at the Worcester County Administrative Building in Snow Hill.
For those who say strong agricultural zoning is war on rural Maryland, the reality is quite the opposite. It is perhaps the only thing that can save it.
(The writer is the executive director of the Maryland Coastal Bays Program.)