12:15 PM EDT, March 31, 2014
Living near Baltimore County's Eastern Sanitary Landfill is no doubt unpleasant. The facility is huge — 375 acres — and handles about a quarter of Baltimore County's solid waste, or almost 75,000 tons of trash a year. Residents of the neighborhoods adjacent to it complain of unpredictable odors that substantially diminish their enjoyment of their property. But a proposal pending in the General Assembly to allow for property tax breaks for the affected communities is the wrong approach.
The landfill opened in the 1980s and was expected to have an operational life of about 30 years, but thanks to a shift toward recycling, among other advances, it's now expected to last substantially longer. Meanwhile, the county has struck a deal with Harford County to use the facility as a transfer station before shipping trash out of state. That will produce some revenue for the county but will also add to the intensity of operations there. As a good neighbor, the county should do what it can to mitigate the negative impacts of those developments.
But creating property tax discounts as a form of compensation is something the county has never done before, and for good reason. The amount of money involved would likely be relatively small — somewhere on the order of $250,000-$330,000 a year, depending on whose estimates you use — but the complications would be substantial. For example:
•Some of the homes in the affected neighborhoods have been owned by the same people or families since before the landfill went into operation, but many others have changed hands, in some cases repeatedly, since the 1980s. Do people who bought into the neighborhood recently deserve the same level of compensation as those who have lived there longer?
•The sale prices of homes in those neighborhoods have been affected by the presence of the landfill for the last 30 years. Those who bought homes there during that time doubtless paid less for their property because of the existence of the landfill, and the result is that everyone in the community likely saw slower growth in assessed values than they otherwise would have. That means, effectively, that they're already paying less in property taxes because of the landfill. How should that factor into the calculations?
•Where does it stop? This landfill isn't by any means the only unpleasant thing that residents of Baltimore County live near either directly or indirectly because of the actions of county government. Del. John A. Olszewski Jr., who supports tax relief for residents near the landfill, neatly, if inadvertently, laid out the slippery slope argument when he said he would also support tax breaks for those who live near other nuisances, like the port with its heavy truck traffic. If that's the case, then what about those who live near the county's other solid waste facilities? Or people who live near fire stations, police stations and hospitals and have to hear sirens in the middle of the night? Or those whose houses are near the jail? County residents have been known to complain about all sorts of things, from lighted athletic fields to the construction of new schools. Should the county start handing out tax breaks to them, too?
County Councilman David Marks, a Republican who represents the neighborhoods around the landfill, points to that last complication as both a practical and political obstacle to securing the kind of relief county legislators have in mind. The bill wouldn't mandate property tax breaks but would instead authorize the County Council to provide them, and not only would Mr. Marks face opposition from County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, who objects to the idea on general principle, but also from his six colleagues who would each wonder why they shouldn't be able to give relief to their constituents as well.
Most fundamentally, property tax breaks wouldn't make the area smell any better. To that end, Mr. Marks has been exploring some more productive avenues for helping the community, such as moving the county's composting operation (a particularly noisome part of the solid waste business) to the county's Central Acceptance Facility, which is in an industrial area of Cockeysville, and investing in the replanting and proper maintenance of trees around the property. Improvements to the road network in the area might also be warranted. Reinvesting some of the proceeds from the waste transfer deal with Harford County into mitigating the effects of the landfill would seem entirely appropriate and, unlike a problematic property tax break, might actually help solve the problem.
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