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May 17, 2012

Property Rights and Annexation

Blaine R. Young

With all the recent discussion, debate, protests and media coverage of issues in Frederick County like the budget, teachers’ salaries, grants to nonprofits and other fiscal matters, it seems that growth issues have been taken off the front page.


Now, most people might assume that this Board of County Commissioners would be happy about that, but I have never hesitated to discuss my views on appropriate growth policies in Frederick County.


Four of the current Commissioners ran on a growth platform that was really kind of simple. Comprehensive land use planning is an important growth management tool, and historical comprehensive plans should be respected. As candidates they stated that, as a rule, they were not interested in opening up new growth areas where growth had never been planned for growth before, and that they intended to respect “at least 97%” of the Comprehensive Plan which was approved by the prior commissioners.


What we did object to was that previous Board of County Commissioners singling out certain property owners who had their zoning or Comprehensive Plan designations changed against their will, for what they viewed as no legitimate (or good) reason.


The commissioners have conducted many public hearings over the last six months to discuss the Comprehensive Plan; and, from what I have seen thus far, this Board of County Commissioners wants to be a board that keeps its word to its citizens, voters and taxpayers. What they don’t need are massive new growth areas. However, this board does need to respect historical growth areas and loosen up the regulations so that people who own land that has been long planned for development can actually proceed in that endeavor.


This is important from a financial standpoint. In Frederick County it was not unusual over the last 25 years for over 2,000 dwelling units to be built in any given year. In fact that Comprehensive Plan approved by the last group of commissioners assumed 1,500 units per year would be built. But because of the economy, and because of the lack of supply of ready-to-go residential properties, the county is struggling to do 700 units per year. That is an enormous drop in our production of housing, which is a vital part of our economy and which – if it continues – will cause significant budgetary problems.


In the City of Frederick the last Board of Aldermen annexed a number of properties, which had long been planned for development. The new Board of Aldermen soon will take up annexation petitions, and I couldn’t help but notice the discussion recently about one of them.


The “Keller” property on Yellow Springs Pike is up for annexation. I think most of us know this property. It contains beautiful rolling pastures and historically has been used as a horse farm. I have read in local papers that many people who live nearby enjoy the view of the horses grazing in the field as they drive from their county homes into the city.


What a lot of people overlook is that not only has this property been planned for residential development for almost 30 years, but since the horse farm started there over 50 years ago almost every property surrounding it has been developed. The Keller family was in no hurry to develop; and, because of that, it seems that some people think they never should be permitted to utilize their property in accordance with their long standing Comprehensive Plan designation.


And people also overlook the fact that the lovely vistas of mares and foals grazing in the field don’t just happen by accident. It takes thousands and thousands of man hours every year to keep a property looking like this property has. And that is very expensive.


The farming business of this property was a family business which was conducted as long as it was economically feasible to raise horses in an increasingly urban location. According to the family, that time has passed. If you drive out that way, it’s not too hard to figure out why. Residential development surrounds it, and active growing neighborhoods are not compatible with raising horses.


A lot of people also overlook that this property has not only been planned for development for almost 30 years, but is also specifically called out in the signed agreement between the city and the county to provide water service to various city properties. That’s right! This property is designated in a document signed in 2006 by both the Mayor and Board of Aldermen of the City of Frederick and the Board of County Commissioners of Frederick County to receive public water for over 800 residential dwelling units.


With the city having a problem paying their annual water bill, it certainly is in the best interest of the city to take the action necessary to fulfill the 2006 water service agreement and provide more ratepayers to carry the cost of the Potomac River Water Project.


The decision on the Keller annexation rests squarely with the Mayor and Board of Aldermen. In my personal capacity, not as a member of the Board of County Commissioners, I urge them to consider the historical context of this property and the prior agreement between the city and the county on water, especially as the city and county negotiate a new sewer agreement.


We all need more homes built in the county, including the municipalities, in order to be able to provide the services that we have promised our residents.


As the history of this property has been forgotten by some, or attempted to be altered, so has the history of “King Kong” Keller. That is a story for another day.


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