The County Council will allow more development in the rural west than originally proposed, but stopped a quarter-acre short of giving the western county's councilman what he wanted.
Sitting as the Zoning Board, council members voted 5-0 to allow one home to be developed for each 4 1/4 acres in the new Rural Conservation zoning district, instead of the one per five acres recommended by the Department of Planning and Zoning.
The decision will be written into draft regulations, which will become official when signed by a majority of the five board members.
The vote followed intense debate and an emotional plea from Councilman Charles Feaga, a Republican who represents western Howard, to set the ratio at 1-to-4.
"What I want to explain to my colleagues is what I think is a direct taking of property," said Mr. Feaga. He said the new zoning's density would steal value from the land that farmers are depending on for their retirement.
"If we lose all respect for the value of an individual's property and make it impossible to farm by devaluing the land, then we have crossed the line," he said.
Councilman Paul Farragut, a Democrat who represents western Columbia, said he thought raising the density would make it difficult for the new zoning formula to work.
Besides making most of the west Rural Conservation, the new regulations also create a Rural Residential zoning strip, from Carroll to Montgomery County just west of Clarksville.
Property owners in the Rural Residential district would be permitted to build more homes by buying the development rights to property in the Rural Conservation district.
The incentive to use the "density exchange option" is that property owners can raise their density. Farragut and council members Shane Pendergrass, D-1st, and Darrel Drown, R-2nd, said increasing allowable density from 1-to-5 to 1-to-4 would weaken that incentive.
"Changing it to three or changing it to four is a pretty major change," said Ms. Pendergrass, who represents the southeastern county. She said she would compromise at one home per 4 1/2 acres, but eventually voted for Mr. Drown's idea of one per 4 1/4 .
But Mr. Feaga, supported by board Chairman C. Vernon Gray, D-3rd, called the density exchanges "unworkable" and said only rich developers would be able to afford to make density deals.
Under current zoning, most of the western county is zoned Rural, or one house per three acres. The three acres is figured on a "net" basis, meaning that undevelopable land such as wetlands and steep slopes are not included.
The new regulations would use a "gross" calculation, which includes all land, in the 1-4 1/4 ratio.
"The bottom line is, this is an upzoning," said John W. Taylor, president of Howard Countians for Responsible Growth. Taylor has fought against the new zoning regulations and favors a 1-to-5 gross for the entire western part of the county.
Martha Clark, who heads the county Farm Bureau, said she was "pleased that they reduced it to some extent," but "I wish that they had gone a little further."
She praised the board's decision to allow an additional home to be built on preservation parcels of more than 25 acres, which "helps compensate for the lost density."