A fight is looming over the fate of nearly 36,000 acres of undeveloped land in western Howard County.
The land is zoned rural, allowing lots of three acres or more.
But county planning and zoning officials plan to recommend that housing on large parcels in the west be clustered on lots averaging one acre at an overall density of one dwelling per five gross acres. The recommendation is consistent with the county's general plan, a 20-year blueprint for development.
Opponents contend that that actually will lead to more development and plan to make their concern known at a public hearing on the recommendation at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at Glenelg High School.
"This is the main event," said John W. Taylor, president of Howard Countians for Responsible Growth, which opposes the change.
"The county has taken a public be damned attitude to our concerns," he said. "I think people are getting sick and tired of being treated that way."
In response to criticism, the planning staff has retreated from a proposal to reclassify a 25-acre parcel near Routes 108 and 32 for office park use, said Joseph W. Rutter, the county planning officer.
Mr. Rutter acknowledged that critics had a point that the office park zoning might not be sufficient buffer to two adjacent farms in the county's farmland preservation program and said he'll recommend that the tract be a rural conservation zone.
That would permit residential development of one unit per five acres or five houses on one-acre lots with the remaining 20 acres of the tract left as open space. The tract, owned by Columbia-based developer John Liparini, is in a rural zone.
County planning officials said in a staff report that the three-acre minimum lot size requirement of the rural zoning district in effect in the west since 1977 has "consumed agricultural land for residential purposes at an alarming rate" and resulted in scattered housing in the western two-thirds of the county -- 96,000 acres outside the public water and sewer district serving the suburbanized east.
Cluster zoning would not significantly alter the overall density in the west and "is intended to improve the chances for agriculture to continue," county planners contend.
Under the county planners' proposals, a "rural conservation" district in the far west and the area near the public water and sewer boundary provide for clustering of one-acre lots at a density of one dwelling unit per five gross acres.
The planners also advocate a rural residential zone in the Route 216 and Route 32 corridor to include an option of clustering houses at a density of one dwelling unit per five gross acres or sticking with minimum three-acre lot sizes.
They also propose a "density exchange option" to permit western land owners to preserve significant blocks of farmland in the rural conservation districts by transferring the density from a large parcel there to parcels elsewhere in the west. For example, a landowner could agree to preserve a parcel as farmland and apply the development rights to another parcel.
"The clustering is being sold as preservation of farmland and open space, but in reality it will result in far more development than the current zoning would," Mr. Taylor maintains.
He said the current three-acre minimum lot sizes result in lots averaging 4.5 acres, and he contended the formula of one unit per five gross acres proposed by county planners "would mean a guaranteed yield of residential units even though much of the remainder of the parcel might be in wetlands."
He said critics of the clustered housing approach also "are concerned about shared septic systems by up to 10 houses because they might fail and contaminate the well water. Failed septic systems also could result in the extension of public water and sewer to the west and open it up to a suburban type of development."
Marsha S. McLaughlin, deputy county planning director, said the county will maintain the shared septic systems, which should assure adequate maintenance. "Poor maintenance is the predominant cause of the septic systems to fail," she said.