If the rezoning of western Howard County was the only thing before the Zoning Board these days, new designations could be in place by June.
But the board's agenda is so crowded that it might not even hold work sessions on the proposal until September.
The board is trying to squeeze the western rezoning package between two other cases. One asks a change to allow a Wal-Mart store in Ellicott City. The other seeks permission to develop a commercial, residential and golfing village near the county landfill.
Both have drawn heated opposition and, on occasion, standing-room only crowds.
Reaction to the western proposal has been mute by comparison.
Tuesday night's 8 o'clock hearing on western zoning map amendments is expected to follow a pattern established the last two weeks. Few peopleattended, and when it came time for opponents to speak, virtually noone condemned the plan altogether.
Among those who came closest to asking for total rejection was slow-growth advocate John W. Taylor of Highland.
"Don't divide the west into rural residential and rural conservation" districts as the administration proposes, Taylor told the board last week. "That would create a strip of suburbia right down the west. Make clustering optional as promised in the 1990 General Plan."
Planning officials say creation of rural residential and conservation districts, along with a requirement that development be clustered on parcels of 20 acres or more, will help preserve agricultural land.
The new zoning would alleviate pressure on property owners who feel compelled to convert agricultural land to residential use, and will help lessen rural-residential conflicts, planning officials say.
Taylor strongly disagrees. The current one-house-per-threeacre rural zoning is "simple, reliable, relatively predictable, has slowed growth in the west, is ground-water safe, environmentally sound and overwhelmingly preferred," Taylor told the Zoning Board.
Theproposed new zoning is "complex, unpredictable, relatively expensiveto administer, risky to ground water, and benefits primarily developers," he said. People who agree with him are not showing up to protest the administration's proposal, he said, because "they believe it's a done deal."
Several farmers told the board last week they fear the proposed zoning would replace the county's highly successful agricultural land preservation program.
"I'm opposed to mandatory cluster zoning," said Gene W. Mullinix, whose family has been farming in Howard County for seven generations. "I'm afraid it will end farmland preservation. It's hard to believe we have 14,000 acres in a voluntary program." Mullinix and the other farmers want that plan to continue.
Philip D. Carroll of Baltimore and of the historic Doughoregan Manor -- the 2,400-acre property that was the home of Declaration of Independence signer Charles Carroll -- said the county needs to clarify what it means when it says it wants to preserve agriculture.
"From what I've heard, people don't want agriculture," Carroll said. "What they want is a nice view and no traffic. If we were saving agriculture as a real goal, we'd be asking Perdue to set up on the (723-acre) Beck place and Armour meat packing to move in on the (198-acre) Feaga place.
"I think this kind of quasi-industrial business -- whichis about the only way farming can succeed nowadays -- is going to beeven less welcome than an office park. So I think we should be clearabout agriculture."
Family farming won't work anymore in Howard County, Carroll said, because the value of land is already too high. He said clustering is a "good move" toward preserving agricultural land, "but just might not be adequate."
Putting fewer houses on more acres is not a solution, Carroll said, because while living in California, he had seen low-density housing consume a 90-acre parcel on a peninsula there.
What might work, he said, are "high densities carefully placed and planned." He called on the Zoning Board to stop allowing strip shopping centers and cul-de-sac developments. What is needed instead, he said, is a suitable mix of residences and businesses in a town or village concept.
"The growth that's coming doesn't have to be as bad as what we've been used to," he said.
The hearing will begin 8 p.m. in the county office building.