CHARLES TOWN – Some area residents and members of the building community are at odds over a proposal being considered by the Jefferson County Commission that would extend the approvals of developers’ construction plans.
The measure in question has been proposed by Jefferson County Citizens for Economic Preservation, and it mimics a proposal that died in committee in the state Capitol this year. The legislature had previously granted a 2½-year extension of construction plans, but the industry failed to obtain a second three-year extension from the legislature during the last session.
County Commissioners held a public hearing on the proposal last week. The JCCEP hopes the Commission will step in and do what the legislature declined to do.
Mike Wiley, president of JCCEP, argued the extension would be of considerable benefit to homeowners in incomplete developments, adding that without the extension some developers might have to abandon construction plans and leave subdivisions unfinished.
“I think, ironically, what we’re asking for tonight should curtail a lot of the public’s perception that developers are all evil,” Wiley said. “We’re actually trying to put a stop to developments that go unfinished. By giving us more time … we’re going to have the ability to finish the developments that we started in the manner that we started and provide what the residents bought into.”
“We’re not trying to pull anything over on the citizens or taxpayers of Jefferson County,” Wiley said.
Joe Thompson, a Kabletown resident, questioned the lack of specifics in the proposal and said he thought undeveloped subdivisions should be given a second look with the new regulations in mind.
“Philosophically, I have a little bit of an issue with the idea that, well, new subdivision regulations were passed and we want to kind of duck out of that,” Thompson said. “There’s a reason they were passed, and I think if the existing developments don’t comply substantially with the new regulations … maybe it’s time to go back and revisit and say, ‘What needs to change? Why aren’t they complying, and what effect would that noncompliance have on everyone around them?’”
John Maxey, a Harpers Ferry resident, said he thought the Commission should require these developments – which had previously been approved under stormwater regulations dating to 1979 – to comply with newer stormwater regulations in return for the extension.
“The 1979 ordinances were primarily concerned with flood control,” Maxey said. “At that point in time, we weren’t really considering issues of environmental degradation of the Chesapeake Bay.”
Maxey said if development were allowed to continue under the 1979 ordinances, then farmers and homeowners would be forced to take on a greater portion of the burden of Chesapeake Bay Initiative regulations.
“The issue before you this evening … is not going to be whether or not there is going to be a price to pay for these extensions. It is about who is going to pay that price,” Maxey said. “If (developers) don’t pay it, under the terms of the Watershed Implementation Plan, other people in Jefferson County will have to pay – primarily either agriculture, or the citizens and residents of the municipalities of Charles Town, Ranson and Shepherdstown.”
John Reisenweber, president of the Jefferson County Development Authority, said the measure was a reasonable response to a precipitous, unforeseen decline in the housing market and added that the JCDA’s board of directors had voted unanimously to support the proposal.
“I think it’s important to understand the level to which the downturn in the housing market has affected the economy here locally. It’s been tremendous,” Reisenweber said. “The request for extensions under these extraordinary circumstances seems very, very reasonable.”
Middleway resident Peter Fricke, on the other hand, argued that it was irresponsible for the Commission to bail out “land speculators” when they made bad bets.
“On the basis of their continuing ‘hardship,’ due to their failed bets, the JCCEP is asking you, the County Commission, to further extend the land speculators’ subdivision plans, preliminary plats and site plans,” Fricke said. “If a developer lost a bet as a gambler in the casino, or on the stock market, or was a shopkeeper who lost his business due to the closure of a plant up the street, he would not be claiming hardship and asking for relief from his losses. The nature of capitalism is that failure is part of the gamble, and the role of the County Commission is not to regulate the market in land.”
Fricke also argued that developers coming forward with new proposals would be disadvantaged significantly by the decision to extend approvals, since they would be forced to compete with developments approved under a less rigorous regulatory regime.
Peter Corum, a Shepherdstown resident, argued that granting the extension was the only way to ensure the survival of local, small builders.
“By not providing an extension, you will effectively eliminate the remaining small business builders in the county,” Corum said. “The only people with the bandwidth to withstand and keep coming back and back for platting and the expense of (it) are the large nationals or multi-regionals.”
Corum called not helping the developers a “vindictive move.”
“I would equate it to: should we have not helped the auto industry? Think about all those jobs,” he said.