While traveling through western Harford County, you spy three large, modern homes on an expanse of countryside -- distant ships on a sea of green. To you, it's a placid scene. To many a farmer, it's their community gone to the dogs.
As Harford residents celebrate their county's agri-culture at this weekend's "Farm Fair," government officials are mapping a plan to protect the future of farming in their developing suburb.
Harford has grown at nearly double the state population rate since 1980 and should do so through the next 20 years. Despite having planned well for growth, Harford still has lost 50,000 acres, one-third of its farmland, to development.
Officials are concerned, not because they must ensure a supply of tractor pulls and pig races for future summers' entertainment, but because farming is a $25 million business in the county. Also, by keeping growth near already developed areas, government holds down the cost of having to build new schools and roads to accommodate new population.
County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann's administration is completing its "Rural Plan" -- a potpourri of controls and stimuli tried elsewhere.
A fund to pay farmers to keep their land in farming has been used in Howard County. A proposal to allow farmers to sell "development rights" to builders who want to add density to their subdivision plans was borrowed from Montgomery County. An impetus to pay greater heed to the county's rural villages flowed from southern Pennsylvania.
Officials thought they could save farmland through restrictive large-lot zoning. They came to realize, though, that more people were willing and able to build on large lots than anticipated. Homes rose. Services followed. To city dwellers, it remained the sticks. To farmers, it was a business environment -- and a way of life -- disappearing.
Harford officials should be complimented for planning for farming's future. It must be pointed out, though, that even some supportive growers and dairymen feel the "Rural Plan" will do more for government than for them. They understandably fear any controls that might devalue their land. Taxpayers also must still be sold on a new local transfer tax on construction that would fund farm preservation as well as new schools.
Ultimately, the forces that will define Harford County in the next century are beyond the control of the Rehrmann administration. Just as Harford countians 20 years ago would have scoffed at the notion of the bedroom community that has mushroomed in their midst, neither can today's leaders predict the effects of a shrunken Aberdeen Proving Ground or how the home-building of the 1980s will beget further growth in "move-up homes."
Local government can't control the future; the best it can hope for is to stay a step or two ahead.