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County Councilman Jerry Walker: Schuh's 'line' infringes on property rights

County Councilman Jerry Walker: Schuh is doubling down on O'Malley's bad land-use ideas

The Rural Conservation Line, or RCL, legislation proposed by County Executive Steve Schuh doubles down on his support of former Gov. Martin O'Malley's policies. In 2012, O'Malley introduced Senate Bill-236, which limited development rights on farmland and crushed the property values of these small-business owners. The legislation mandated county government establish imaginary lines that restricted where sewers could be added and built in development regulations that deflated agricultural land values.

County governments were opposed because this removed local control, the Maryland Farm Bureau was opposed because it killed land values, and all Republican elected members of the state Senate and House of Delegates except two opposed the legislation. Then-Del. Schuh stood with Gov. O'Malley in support of this new mandate, as he had supported the rain tax mandate.

On Nov. 15, the county executive came in front of the council at our work session and stated that the RCL bill is "the most important piece of legislation" he has introduced. He that the bill draws another imaginary line that essentially mirrors the mandated lines drawn by SB 236. While he claims this line does nothing to change property rights, the text of the bill clearly removes one of only two reasons a property owner can use to request that property be rezoned. That strips a fundamental right from all property owners on the rural side of the line, without notification. It would in fact diminish property rights.

Thomas Sowell, a well-known conservative and libertarian economist, wrote an article about property rights that's posted at Townhall.com. Sowell criticized decisions by the supervisors of Loudon County, Virginia, that changed zoning to "protect" rural land. He wrote: "When the use of land is restricted to ways that only the wealthy can afford, that eliminates a major part of its value … It is precisely the wealthy and affluent who gain by restricting other people's property rights …"

"In a free market with undiluted property rights," Sowell wrote, "the nonrich would outbid the rich for much land and use that land in ways that suit the circumstance of ordinary people. For example, grand estates would be broken up into smaller plots for more modest homes … That is what the affluent and the wealthy strive to prevent by government-imposed restrictions on land use."

Whether or not you agree with Sowell, the fact remains that property rights should, at a minimum, be maintained at their current level and not diminished. Development planning, instead of punishing or rewarding people who live on either side of an arbitrary line, should use incentives to steer growth toward and away from areas.

The tracts designated by this legislation are already protected by current zoning and the prohibitive cost of adding sewer and water service. Because the county executive is receiving pushback from all over the county, he is now changing his talking points to say that this is about his commitment to protecting south county.

I have a track record of supporting our farmers and appreciate the beauty of south county, but the bill proposes 10 different pockets of property. The parcels are not contiguous and nine aren't in south county — but one, coincidently, includes Schuh's primary residence on Gibson Island.

In my opposition to this legislation I have made clear that very few citizens on the rural side of the line are complaining about development, because they are already protected. Constituents on the other side of the line are feeling the pressure of a balloon that is being squeezed on the other end.

I support keeping the rural look and feel of south county, but Bill 82-16 is an ill-conceived piece of public policy and should be part of a broader conversation that includes all of our county. Doubling down on O'Malley's legislation is not the best starting point to preserve already-protected land in an attempt to green-wash development policy.

If you have thoughts on this topic, please send me an email at jerry.walker@aacounty.org, or call me at 410-222-1401.

Jerry Walker, R-Crofton, represents District 7 on the County Council.

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