Farmer wins right to subdivide his land, then decides to preserve it


December 17, 1990|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,Evening Sun Staff

After a lifetime of hard work and minimal profits, Donald Ensor is a northern Baltimore County farmer who resents being told what to do with his property, especially by county government bureaucrats in Towson.

He fought county officials for two years and finally won the right to sell his 186-acre farm for development despite attempts by the county's new Department of the Environment to prevent it, or at least to sharply curb the number of lots he could sell.

Now that Ensor has defeated the bureaucrats, however, the sluggish economy and rising land values are helping persuade him to do what they wanted in the first place.

With the home-building market having gone flat, and cash-laden developers less apt to knock at his door, Ensor feels he can now do almost as well by taking state money to compensate him for preserving the farm as by selling the property for new homes.

"We'd be thrilled," says Karen Meyer, director of the Valleys Planning Council, a private watchdog group who fought Ensor, commenting on his intent to apply for the preservation program. "We've been urging him to do that all along."

"I always did believe in land preservation," Ensor says.

A combination of rising prices for agricultural easements and the recession prompted him to sign up, he says. Under the program, the land could not be developed for at least 25 years, though Ensor, 65, retains ownership and may continue to live there.

The battle over his farm on Mount Carmel Road served as the impetus for a year-old county law that restricts development rights on rural land zoned for watershed protection -- a law due to expire Jan. 1 unless the County Council votes to extend it tonight

The fight has been over land near reservoirs and waterways that is not zoned as normal farmland, but for watershed protection. Watershed zoning allows one house per three acres, more liberal than the one house allowed on every 50 acres in farmland zones in Baltimore County.

County officials fought Ensor's plan to create 36 home sites by claiming that it conflicted with the master plan, which calls for agricultural uses in that area. Ensor's property, about two miles west of Interstate 83, is in the watershed zone because it sits just south of Prettyboy Reservoir. The county feared that allowing so many new homes in the midst of farmland would threaten the rural nature of the area and drive a wedge for further residential development.

Since the battle began over Ensor's land, the council has decided that land with good soil in prime agricultural areas would be restricted to one house per 50 acres, regardless of zoning.

Ensor won his legal battle in October when, for lack of money, the private Valleys Planning Council dropped its appeal of his last court victory. But last week, he signed up to sell his development rights to the state and place his land in agricultural preservation. He still has some time to change his mind. If he doesn't, the land will be safe from development for the next 25 years, and he could still collect more than $1 million for his retirement.

The council is expected to vote tonight to delay the expiration of the law that would restrict building on prime farmland for one year while the newly elected county executive and council take more time to figure out how to compensate farmers for the reduced development value of their land.

Land values have risen so much during Ensor's long fight that by placing his farm in the state preservation program and selling the right to build homes there for 25 years, he could get $5,000 to $8,000 an acre. For 186 acres, that would amount to between $930,000 and $1.48 million, and he and his wife would still be able to live on the land.

The new law that protects watershed farmland regardless of zoning was approved by the council Oct. 2, 1989, about nine months after Ensor began his fight. A committee studying ways to compensate farmers for lost land-development value recommended several ways to reimburse them, but last month's election of a new county executive and five new council members and hard economic times have pushed council Chairman Charles A. Dutch Ruppersberger, D-3rd, to ask for more time to decide the matter.

The committee suggested creating a new, local agricultural preservation program; making supplementary payments to farmers already enrolled in the state preservation program; granting a tax credit; or allowing new development to be clustered in one section of watershed protection land to retain more open land. The first three suggestions would cost the county money, so they must be reviewed first by the newly elected county officials, Ruppersberger said.

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