Rural property owners and the chairman of the county agricultural land preservation board said yesterday that they are bewildered by a recent ruling from the county's lawyers.
The opinion says the petitions of three Glenwood property owners who wish to enter the preservation program are invalid because each of the parcels is less than 50 acres and none is contiguous to another parcel already in the program.
"I don't know what happened, but it appears they changed the rules in the middle of the game," said Dorothy Sundstrom, one of the property owners.
"I received a call about 3 p.m. saying the county wasinterpreting the law differently from the last eight or 10 years. Earlier we were told we would go to the top of the list -- that 100 percent of our property passed on everything."
Sundstrom and her husband, John, were seeking to put 43.4 acres along Bruntwoods Road and Route 97 into the land preservation program. Their property is contiguous with the 38.3 acres being submitted by Daryl G. Stewart and 27 acres offered by Warren H. Boyer. Boyer, Stewart and the Sundstroms jointly applied for inclusion of their combined 108.7 acres July 2.
Board Chairman James Robert Moxley said he and other members did not learn of the decision until they arrived to conduct the public hearing.
"My impression was that we could accept parcels of less than 50 acres as long as together they totaled more," Moxley said.
He saidhe was basing that belief on a section in the county code that says a parcel of less than 50 contiguous acres is eligible for inclusion in the program if it "is one of several parcels with a total acreage of 50 acres or more, for which easement sale negotiations and offers are simultaneously conducted."
Moxley thought that was exactly whatwas happening in this instance.
So apparently did farmland preservation Administrator John W. Musselman.
Musselman said that for the past three years, the preservation board has been advising owners of small land parcels with contiguous properties to join together and enter the program. This new decision appears contrary to that policy,he said.
Board members and property owners say they are confused about the decision because no one from the office of law was present at the board meeting Monday to explain it. Barbara Cook, the county'schief legal officer, was away from her office yesterdayand could notbe reached for comment.
"I don't have the vaguest idea what happened," Stewart said. "It's really late in the game to determine if we're really eligible. If (the county was) really trying to keep farm businesses alive, we would be prime candidates." Stewart runs a horse farm on her 38 acres and Boyer runs a landscaping operation on the 27 acres he wants included.
Boyer said he assumed Monday night's public hearing on the request had been canceled because, he said, he was "told at the lastminute the properties no longer fit the description."
Moxley said that he plans to set up a meeting between the officeof law and the three landowners within the next two weeks and that the owners may bring legal counsel with them if they wish.
The landowners said they have no plans to hire a lawyer to represent them.
"I'm hoping reasonable people will prevail," Stewart said."You can'tgive away the legacy of the land."