Harford is at risk of losing the rural character that lured many new residents to the county during the building boom of the late 1980s.
That's the consensus of planners who last week made public a draft of a three-part program aimed at directing growth away from agricultural land.
Planners have noticed for several years that more sprawling development was occurring in rural areas, said Michael Paone, the agricultural planner in the county's Department of Planning and Zoning.
Between 1985 and 1990, Harford lost about 15,000 acres of farmland to development, said Paone. A total of 50,000 acres of agricultural land have been developed since 1965, said Paone.
"We want to redirect growth away from primarily agricultural areas," said Paone.
"We're not trying to take away people's development rights, but we do want to give them alternatives to just selling the land to developers."
To slow the trend, planners asked the County Council to adopt a program that changes the way land development rights -- the number of houses that can be built on a piece of land -- can be used in agricultural areas.
Currently, one house can be built on every 10 acres when land is zoned for agricultural use. That means a 100-acre farm has 10 development rights and could have 10 homes built on it.
A landowner may have additional development rights on property based on the number of children or other immediate family members, said Paone. Those additional development rights are called family conveyances.
County planners, who have spent more than two years studying the issue, have come up with three suggestions for slowing rural growth:
* A purchase of development rights program.
* A transfer of development rights program.
* A "conservation development" program.
Under the so-called purchase of development rights (PDR) program, the county would pay a farmer for development rights. In exchange the farmer, and anyone to whom the farmer sells the land, would give up the right to develop the property.
The program costs would be covered with money from a proposed 1 percent county property transfer tax, which will be on the ballot in November. Farmers would be paid with annual tax-free interest payments from 20-year bonds purchased with that money, and would receive a lump sum payment of the principal after 20 years.
Under the transfer of development rights (TDR) program, the county would target certain rural areas for growth. A developer who wanted to build more homes in that so-called "receiving area" than allowed under zoning laws could then buy development rights to farms in areas the county wants preserved. Those development rights, up to a certain limit, could be transferred to the property where the development would be built.
The conservation development program is aimed at grouping homes so that most of an agricultural parcel that is being developed would be left intact.
William G. Carroll, director of the Department of Planning and Zoning, said that in agricultural areas landowners are allowed to build one house per 10 acres, with a minimum lot size of two acres on which the house can sit.
"We're consuming too much land with this rural situation. We need to look at different zoning standards so we can decrease minimum lot sizes without increasing density."
Carroll said one reason for the minimum two-acre lot size is that the county requires 40,000 square feet of land to provide a septic drainage field.
"There are some areas where there is suburban sprawl -- two-acre lots as far as the eye can see," said Paone.
He said reducing lot sizes would allow a developer to group homes closer together, thus leaving the rest of the property undisturbed. "This would create more buffers and have more of a positive aesthetic impact," Paone said.
Donald M. Hoopes, president of the Harford County Farm Bureau and owner of a 137-acre farm in Forest Hill, said Harford farmers generally support the proposals.
"What we wanted were options," said Hoopes.
The different programs can be advantageous to farmers who need money to plan their estates, pay off debts or plan ahead for bad years, he said.
The programs would allow farmers to benefit from the value of their land but still live on it and farm, said Hoopes. His family participated in the state's purchase of development rights program.