EASTON -- "A place in the country," tucked away amid golden wheat fields, pastures full of grazing cattle, and big, old red barns is what many potential homebuyers envision when they ride across the Bay Bridge in search of land on Maryland's Eastern Shore.
But recent zoning changes that sharply restrict housing development in four counties of the Shore are making the dream of living along the picturesque, rural back roads less attainable.
Fear of losing farmland and, consequently, the farming industry, have prompted county officials in Queen Anne's, Kent and Caroline counties to adopt some of the most restrictive zoning in the state. By spring, Talbot County officials hope to pass a similar ordinance to severely reduce housing densities in agricultural districts.
"In recent years, we saw a disturbing trend of more and more subdivisions in our agricultural zone. Two lots here, four lots there, or whole farms. We moved pretty quick to put a hold on it," said Barry Griffith, assistant planning director for Talbot County, which in August 1989 imposed a moratorium on building homes on land zoned foragriculture while the county drafted a new comprehensive plan and zoning ordinance.
Pressure to develop farmland into housing was felt hardest in Queen Anne's County, the first county across the Bay Bridge. Queen Anne's lost almost all of Kent Island -- which is in easy commuting distance to Anne Arundel County and Baltimore City -- and hundreds of acres around Queenstown and Grasonville to development in the three decades after the first Bay Bridge was built in 1952.
In 1987, the county adopted "performance zoning," which allows developers as much as 12 building units on a 100-acre farm if the houses are clustered onto 15 acres.
In August 1989, Kent County followed suit by adopting housing densities of one house per 10, 20 or 30 acres, depending on how much farmland the development used, where it was placed on the farm and the appearance of the houses.
Then on Jan. 1, 1990, Caroline adopted its policy of one house per 20 acres of agricultural land.
The new ordinances replace lenient zoning that allowed developers to slice an entire farm, no matter its size, into one- or two-acre home sites.
The result is that fewer rural home sites are available now or will be in the foreseeable future. And where country lots can be found, they are likely to be no bigger than an acre and contained in a small subdivision. This is because the counties now frown on "big" construction lots of five, 10 or 20 acres, that took huge chunks of farmland out of production.
In fact, most of the counties offer developers incentives of more construction lots on a parcel of land if they keep lot sizes small and houses clustered together on an unobtrusive corner of the farm.
Most of the counties also permit developers to increase the number of units they can build on a farm through a process called the transfer of development rights, or TDRs. The rights to develop are purchased from other farms in the county, and then deed restrictions are placed on the land from which the TDRs are transferred, thus prohibiting development of that land in the future.
The TDRs, which normally sell for between $4,000 and $7,000 per lot in Queen Anne's County, but have gone for as much as $50,000 when used for waterfront properties, are particularly attractive to farmers who otherwise might be forced to sell off lots or their entire farm to raise money during bad economic times.
The idea of restricting housing development in agricultural districts is not new. Many counties west of the Chesapeake Bay have done it for years. The major difference with the Eastern Shore counties is they have so much more farmland to protect than the western counties.
Caroline, for example, is still 85 percent rural, compared with some western shore counties that have placed only one-third of their land in agricultural zones.
The Queen Anne's ordinance is designed to preserve 85 percent of its remaining farmland. Talbot County's intent is to preserve at least 70 percent.
Already, the new zoning ordinances have made a significant impact on preserving farmland in these mid-Shore counties. A survey done in Kent County showed 73 percent of that county's building permits were issued for lots in agricultural districts before the zoning ordinance was adopted in August 1989.
Afterward, only 12 percent of the building permits were on land zoned for farming, said Gail Owings, the county planning director.
In Caroline, the big building boom since the new ordinance has been chicken houses and town subdivisions -- exactly what county officials and planners had hoped for.
The increase in building permits for chicken houses shows that farmers are convinced they won't be pushed off the land by development and are willing to invest capital to expand their farming operations, said County Planning Director Betsey Krempasky.