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Worcester land-use policies based on democracy - December 13, 2012

Since 1967, Worcester County has promoted policies to curb sprawl, keep farming and forestry viable, protect water quality, lower tax rates and keep residents out of harm’s way.

Through forward-thinking planning and zoning, Worcester has boasted the lowest income tax rate and the second-lowest property tax rate in Maryland for decades. At the same time, the county has allowed for substantial land development over the past 45 years.

In November, the county held public meetings to show how a new state law to limit septic tank proliferation is relevant. Based on Worcester’s current zoning, it won’t impact the county at all.

While the law will not supersede local planning and zoning authority, it could coax other Eastern Shore jurisdictions into taking a serious look at just how their planning and zoning laws support the agrarian and tourism economies, and how zoning affects the amount of tax citizens pay for roads, schools and emergency services.

For every dollar levied in taxes, sprawl development costs taxpayers about $1.15, while land in agriculture and forestry demand only about 44 cents. When comparing tax rates and populace by county around the state, that’s easy to see.

This is why it seems odd that a vocal minority of folks in Worcester who are concerned about taxes are bristling over this exercise. Those concerned about taxes and long-term economic viability should be calling for more planned growth rather than a laissez-faire approach.

It’s not developers who are balking at planned growth, but rather a group of activists concerned that a United Nations conspiracy to promote sustainability will take away personal property rights.

The viability of such a worldview notwithstanding, developers, farmers and other property owners have been through the planning process ad nauseam in Worcester County for the past 15 years.

In 1998 and in 2000, more than 400 residents attended visioning exercises and overwhelmingly said they wanted planned growth and zoning to protect farms and forests.

Again in 2006, during Worcester County’s comprehensive plan update, and in 2008-09 during comprehensive rezoning, county residents established a consensus-based middle ground that prescribed more growth, but kept farming, forestry and tourism viable by limiting parcelization and keeping our bays and beaches clean.

What residents learned was that 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. What they rejected was any rogue faction of individuals claiming to know what’s best for us.

Democracy works best when a majority of people have a say in their future.

Without proper planning, all of our rights to clean bays and rivers, lower taxes and public safety are diminished.

Dave Wilson is the executive director of the Maryland Coastal Bays Program.


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