Downzoning questions linger, a decade later

Originally published in the Herald-Mail

Thomas A. Firey Sep 21, 2016

Washington County reached a milestone of sorts this summer: 10 years ago, county officials announced that, dagnabbit, they couldn’t find a way to compensate farmers and other landowners for the property rights lost in the previous year’s radical rural downzoning. The officials were sincere in this announcement—it’s hard to accomplish something you don’t want to do—and it brought to an end a political saga that had roiled the county for years.

But a decade later, a nagging question lingers: What was the true purpose of the downzoning, which the county commissioners passed over vigorous public opposition? What really motivated them to extinguish nearly 90 percent of the development rights over 80 percent of the county, with nary a thought to all the people who were hurt by the change? None of the county officials’ justifications make sense in retrospect (and, really, didn’t at the time), and no new justifications have been given.

The downzoning occurred at the height of last decade’s housing bubble, so one might think it was intended to control runaway development. Some officials said as much, but the data don’t support that. Over the 20th century, Washington County’s population grew at an average rate of 1.1 percent a year, while in the years 2000–2005 it grew at an average rate of 1.5 percent.[1] That was an increase to be sure, but hardly a dramatic change, and (as downzoning opponents predicted[2]) the growth collapsed following the bubble’s 2006 pop.[3] Moreover, county officials conceded that without the downzoning, only 20–25 percent of development would flow into the 80 percent of the county slated for downzoning.[4] Meanwhile, the county’s development zones—where heavy growth was really happening—weren’t rezoned until years later, and the changes were arguably minor. So the “control runaway growth” justification for the downzoning makes little sense.

County officials also claimed the downzoning was needed to protect local taxpayers. New residents mean expanded public services, and increasing road capacity, sewer service, public water, school buildings, emergency services, etc., costs money. But new residents don’t just consume public services, they also pay taxes and utility bills. It’s unclear why, with all that new money, growth would lead to higher taxes and utilities rates. If anything, new residents should produce lower rates because they would share the burden of existing public expenses known as “fixed costs.”

Besides, rural growth often has lower public infrastructure costs than development-zone growth.[5] In rural areas, instead of public water and sewer, many homes use privately provided wells and septic systems. Also, some existing rural infrastructure has ample capacity—think “lonely country road.”

Concerns about crowded schools appear to make more sense, except that some of the downzoning’s tightest restrictions[6] were around Hancock, where the middle/high school is 55 percent below capacity, and Cascade, where the elementary school is 30 percent below capacity.[7] So the “saving taxpayers from infrastructure costs” explanation for the rural downzoning doesn’t make much sense either.

One justification that does make some sense is that, even if the flow of development into the county’s rural areas was small and public infrastructure needs were manageable, any development in those areas would detract from the rural beauty. County officials, in promoting the downzoning, often professed, “We as a community need to protect our rural heritage.” Yet when it came time to shoulder the burden for that protection, “We” suddenly disappeared. Instead the costs were foisted onto the county’s farmers and other rural landowners—the people who were already maintaining that heritage. Apparently, county officials didn’t really think “we as a community” needed—or wanted—to protect “our” rural heritage.

It should be noted that a group of downzoning supporters, the Citizens for the Protection of Washington County (CPWC), did publicly support the idea of compensating rural landowners and acknowledged that all county residents should fairly share in the cost of preservation. Credit CPWC for being honest and fair-minded; they may have been the only such people on the pro-downzoning side.

County officials offered other hollow justifications for the downzoning. Interestingly, several of them are being repeated today in opposition to immigration: Government needs to stop outsiders from “invading our community,” bringing along crime and foreign values, upsetting the local job market and harming “our way of life.” Oh, and anyone who disagrees is a greedy traitor to his community and is in the pocket of big business.[8]

Apparently the commissioners were determined to make Washington County great again. They wrested control of privately owned rural lands from the owners who had paid for, maintained and paid taxes on them, and gave that control to the county’s politicians and bureaucrats. Perhaps that begins to explain the real purpose of the downzoning.

It may also answer another question. The commissioners who backed the downzoning were punished for violating the public will: most of them were voted out of office or, heeding the political winds, didn’t stand for reelection. So why hasn’t a subsequent board of county commissioners thrown out the downzoning and returned Washington County to its original 1973 zoning ordinance, which was the product of hard work and public compromise? After all, outside of county government offices, there was practically no local demand to replace the 1973 ordinance.[9]

Perhaps the answer to this question is that the current county commissioners, like their predecessors, like having the politically empowered control Washington County’s private rural lands instead of the landowners.

Thomas A. Firey is senior fellow for the Maryland Public Policy Institute and a native of Washington County.

[1] U.S. Census Bureau, “Populations of the States and Counties of the United States, 1790–1990, Part III,” and Census 2000.

[2] See, e.g., Thomas A. Firey, “’Dirt Pay’ Reconsidered,” Herald-Mail (Hagerstown, Md.), June 17, 2005; Thomas A. Firey, “Do We Need Affordable Housing Programs?” Herald-Mail (Hagerstown, Md.), October 23, 2005.

[3] U.S. Census Bureau, “Intercensal Estimates of the Resident Population of Counties: April 1, 2000 to July 1, 2010: Maryland.”

[4] Comprehensive Plan for the County, 2002, Washington County, Md., 2002, pp. 234, 239.

[5] See, e.g., Helen Ladd, “Population Growth, Density, and the Costs of Providing Public Services,” Urban Studies 29(2): 273–295; Alan Altshuler and Jose Gomez-Ibanez, Regulation for Revenue: The Political Economy of Land Use Exactions, Washington: Brookings Institution Press and Cambridge, Mass.: Lincoln Land Institute, 1993.

[6] “Land Use Plan” (zoning map), Comprehensive Plan for the County, 2002.

[7] Washington County Public Schools website,

[8] For examples of these claims concerning the downzoning, see various letters to the editor, columns and editorials published in the Herald-Mail (Hagerstown, MD) between 2003 and 2006.

[9] As explained in the introduction of the Comprehensive Plan for the County, 2002, county officials held 13 “public input meetings” to gather local residents’ thoughts on revising the zoning ordinance. The meetings were very poorly attended—three had no attendees at all—and produced a mere 57 “survey responses” of citizen concerns. “Approximately 90%” of those responses “listed growth management and land use issues as a top priority in the planning of the County’s future resources,” according to the Comprehensive Plan, which interpreted those comments as “clearly indicat[ing] that the residents of the County are concerned about a perceived intensification of population growth in the area.” Of course, 50-odd comments from a self-selected group in a county of 130,000 people cannot in any reasonable way be interpreted as indicating a public demand for radical changes to long-established land use policy. If anything, the meager turnouts and few comments indicate broad public satisfaction with the then-existing zoning policy. See Comprehensive Plan for the County, 2002, p. xv.