3-acre Zoning Is Still The Best Course For Western County

COUNTY FORUM/Opinions by and for county readers

November 20, 1991|By John W. Taylor For the Howard County Sun

Now that many citizens have had a chance to hear and see the proposals for comprehensive rezoning of western Howard County, I would like to offer some thoughts. I'm sure that it will surprise no one who follows this topic to see me write an opinion that the current 3-acre zoning, in combination with an aggressively implemented Farmland Preservation Program, is still the best course of action; I'd like to offerreasons why.

First, the clustering proposals offered by the Department of Planning and Zoning are being sold as a way to preserve farmland and open space. Well, almost, anyway. It seems that DPZ has included school sites as an allowable use on land "saved" by clustering (also called "remainder" parcels).

OK, fine, we need schools, right? Well, what will it be next year, and the year after that? It only takes a ruling by the Zoning Boardto expand allowable uses on the "saved" open space, and it isn't hard to imagine more and more uses being added over time. The ink is hardly dry on the proposals, and already we're banking land for future uses, instead of firmly restricting it to permanent status as farmlandor green space.

Sure, I know, 3-acre lots could someday be rezoned for other uses, but try putting a school, library, police station or whatever, between two homes on 3-acre lots. It's not going to happen. But with clustering, staged growth is all but guaranteed, right inthe new regulations.

Next, there has to be management and maintenance of land "saved" by clustering, especially if it is used for something other than farming or true open space. What will that cost? Whowill be responsible? What is the county government (taxpayers) role?How will remainder parcel uses be policed and enforced? As a taxpayer, I'd like to know, in detail, before we commit to changing the zoning.

Ground water is hardly addressed in the proposals. Consider that the new "Rural Residential District" sits right over the geological formation with the highest susceptibility to ground water pollutionand pollutant migration. (Source: the county's own Geomatrix ground water study used in developing the 1990 General Plan.)

Cockeysville marble runs not only throughout the Clarksville area but in other areas of the west as well. Concentrating density through the proposed Density Exchange Option, allowing shared septic systems in areas highly susceptible to ground water pollution, or both, is asking for trouble.

This is exactly what the proposals do. Whatever else some people may feel about 3-acre zoning, one thing is not really arguable: 3-acre zoning has been proved ground water safe, and 14 years of 3-acre zoning bear that out.

And what happens if clustering ruins the ground water? In the Rural Residential District in particular, public water and sewer lines are near enough to extend. Then, with a few zoning changes (public water and sewer constitutes the legal "change to the neighborhood" required for rezoning), we could have almost half of the west turned from rural conservation to mid- to high-density suburbia.

In a related matter, the shared septic systems proposed areacknowledged to require county maintenance. How much will that cost,and who will pay for it? What is the likelihood of the county havingto take any major action with a shared septic system, and what are the projections of those costs over time? It is not evident that any of this has been considered at any reasonable level of detail, yet theproposals are on their way to adoption.

So does all of this mean we should simply throw the idea of clustering out and keep the statusquo? I think so, but I realize after three years of fighting this battle, that's not likely to happen.

But there are actions that could be taken to mitigate the damage:

* Restrict uses of remainder parcels only to active farming as defined in the current Subdivision Regulations, or to actual unused open space, as in wildlife preserves.

* Require four preservation easement holders, one national, one state, one local and our county government, for parcels that do not go into the Agricultural Preservation Program.

* Require the county government to actively defend against breach of preservation easements.

* Ban clustering (keep 3-acre minimums) in any areas with groundwater pollutability indexes above the minimum as defined in the Geomatrix study.

* Ban shared septic systems altogether, and bump up the lot size in cluster developments to a minimum 2 acres for well andseptic safety.

* Delete the Density Exchange Option from the proposals, as it will encourage and actually "incentivize" unnecessary development as well as potentially threaten ground water safety.

* Delete "Rural Residential," as even the term itself implies development instead of preservation; continue to treat the entire west as a Rural Conservation Area.

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