Farmers' opposition to rural plan takes county planners by surprise

September 20, 1992|By Frank Lynch and Carol L. Bowers | Frank Lynch and Carol L. Bowers,Staff Writers

Trying to convince Harford farmers to accept the county administration's proposed rural preservation plan "is like one lover trying to make the other fall in love after they get married."

That's what Thomas J. Uzarowski of Forest Hill told the County Council at Tuesday night's resumption of a public hearing on the plan, which is aimed at discouraging farmers from selling their land to developers.

"If we had specifics it might be different, but this is too vague," he said. "And if we're not careful, all of a sudden this policy becomes law."

The plan would give farmers financial options that would allow them to keep their land. The options would permit farmers to sell off development rights, or the rights to build a certain number of homes on their land. Current law allows one house per 10 acres on land zoned for agricultural use.

The half-dozen or so farmers who opposed the plan surprised county administrators who have been working with the Harford County Farm Bureau for nearly two years to establish guidelines to protect rural areas.

County administrators had thought the proposal was well on its way to approval when several farmers rose, objecting to various parts of the plan.

Michael Paone, the county's agricultural planner, said after the hearing, "Either we misread the community or possibly have not done as much as we should have in going out to the community, but we did go to extra lengths in the past six weeks when we realized there was a problem."

Mr. Paone said he believes the farmers' opposition is mostly due to a lack of understanding of the bill's provisions and can be

cleared up quickly.

In an effort to keep the legislation alive and pass it before Oct. 6 -- when it must pass or die -- Council President Jeffrey D. Wilson ordered the hearing continued on a third night. It will resume tomorrow night at 6:30 in the council chambers of the County Courthouse.

Donald Hoopes, president of the Harford County Farm Bureau, said that although the comments Tuesday night came as a surprise, the opinions "represent a consensus of feelings throughout the farming community."

Mr. Hoopes said that while farmers liked the idea behind the plan, two areas remain contentious: a section establishing criteria for roads in scenic rural areas and one recommending that any development be done in an "environmentally sensitive" manner.

"I resent the fact that people who live on one-quarter-acre lots are telling the farmers what to do with their land," said Gary Mills, whose father owns a farm in Fallston. "Those people have regular jobs with all benefits, including retirement plans. Farmers don't. We must have a say in what happens to our land."

Sam Fielder Jr., another farmer, criticized the plan because "it contains no proposals to guarantee farmers the right to continue operating when new homes are built near our property."

XTC He said he's afraid passage of the plan will help his neighbors put his family farm out of business because they don't like the smell or the noise.

"I've already received anonymous notes in my mailbox complaining about the noise our equipment makes early in the morning," he said.

His son, Sam Fielder III, said the plan is "more for open-space preservation than farm preservation."

Others, however, testified in favor of the plan, saying it would help preserve the rural character that has attracted so many new residents to the county in the last five years.

Bob Dillon, treasurer of Harford Citizens for Farmland Preservation, lamented the loss of farmland to development since he moved to the county.

"I moved to my beautiful town of Magnolia in 1966, and since then I've seen 50,000 acres of farmland disappear as a result of development," said Mr. Dillon. "It's not going to be too many more years before it all disappears. This plan calls for a more sensible approach to development."

But Gene Umbarger, a Churchville farmer, said that the county and state governments have been sending a "mixed bag of messages to farmers."

Gov. William Donald Schaefer "wants us to keep farming and then takes away money out of the budget earmarked for land preservation," said Mr. Umbarger. "Now, with additional budget cuts, we may lose the extension service. The support is being cut out from under us. We're not really saving farmland; we're saving open spaces."

Mr. Umbarger said County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann had been "extremely sensitive to the concerns of the farmers, but what I think is needed . . . is that we and the county planners sit down and work out these problems."

The Rural Preservation Proposal

Here are the key elements of a proposal being considered by the County Council that would offer farmers optional financial incentives to discourage them from selling farmland to developers.

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