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Fast Growth Spurs Look At Zoning Overhaul

By Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 9, 2004; Page SM01

A question about whether to allow homes to be built in a part of St. Mary's County slated for office park development started as a small zoning issue for the Board of County Commissioners on Tuesday, but it soon came around -- as building issues often do these days -- to the bigger picture. How fast will the county grow, and will it still feel like St. Mary's if it keeps booming?

Glitches keep popping up in the county's zoning plan, said Commissioner Larry Jarboe (R-Golden Beach). Rather than deal with them piecemeal, he wondered, "Wouldn't it be better if we could put it all together and fix it?"

That question has been coming up a lot lately.

The population has nearly doubled in St. Mary's since 1970, and household incomes have jumped as Patuxent River Naval Air Station has continued to provide high-paying jobs and attract businesses that do the same. The unemployment rate has stayed below the statewide numbers for several years. But the growth has come so quickly that schools, roads and other services haven't always been able to keep up.

Lately, some commissioners have asked whether they need to look more closely at the county's overall zoning ordinance.

"It's like, if we fix this" in Lexington Park, Jarboe said, "then people in the other end of the county will say, 'Look, you took care of them, but what about us? We're far worse off.'"

Over the past month or so, commissioners have talked about whether a planned expansion of Wal-Mart in California will increase traffic on Route 235; about how to revise regulations to allow a group of Mennonites to build a wholesale produce auction house; and about whether the system for preserving rural land is working well enough.

Last month, commissioners President Thomas F. McKay (R-At Large) drew a picture on a whiteboard to illustrate the problem a family faced in trying to divide its farmland among six children. He drew a square, then divided it in half; because of development rules, they would have to first halve their 30 acres, then carve up the remaining 15 acres into six small lots.

The rule was designed for subdivisions, not family farms passed from generation to generation. But sometimes the rules have surprising -- and unwanted -- effects, McKay said.

Commissioner Daniel H. Raley (D-Great Mills) said, "Doing a comprehensive, total rewrite of the zoning ordinance is not a process that I would wish on anybody," and the other commissioners laughed.

Commissioner Thomas A. Mattingly Sr. (D-Leonardtown) said he had cleaned out his garage recently and was so impressed by the pile of paperwork for the zoning plan completed in 2002 that he got a yardstick -- then a longer measuring stick. "There was something over a five-foot stack of papers that we went through," he said. "It wasn't a simple process."

And the rules that work for most situations almost invariably have a few exceptions for individuals that don't quite work, he said.

Still, enough issues have arisen recently that commissioners were talking about it again Tuesday.

In the issue on the table -- whether to allow residential development in part of Lexington Park designated for offices -- they decided not to give up the measure of control they have now. Several mentioned that they are concerned about rapid growth near Willows Road and what could happen to traffic there. They said they'd prefer to have the issue come back to them so they could ask as many questions as they like.

"Sometimes I think we put the cart before the horse," Mattingly said. "We're suffering from that throughout the county as traffic continues to grow."

Jarboe said traffic is increasing, people are frustrated, and the rules meant to protect agricultural land sometimes get too complicated to be effective. As time-consuming as it could be to take a larger look at zoning -- the county's Comprehensive Plan took about six years to complete, Jarboe said -- he doesn't think it makes sense to keep making little fixes.

"There are all these little glitches out there," he said after the meeting, "people saying, 'This needs to be fixed, that needs to be fixed.'"


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