Harford County's proposed Rural Plan aims to please everyone: non-farmers, by preserving vanishing farmland for the community's heritage; government officials, by directing growth to minimize investments in new public facilities, and farmers, by paying them to keep their land in farming.
It's a laudable objective for a rapidly growing county that has lost a third of its agricultural land in the last 25 years to housing, shopping centers and industrial construction. Although it is only a policy guideline for future laws, this document will shape Harford land use well into the next century.
That's all the more reason why the county council should not race to final action by the legal deadline of Oct. 6. Instead, it should introduce an amended bill to allow further reasoned public discussion. As is clear from three public hearings on the complex bill, the dialogue has only begun at the grass roots level, especially among those who would be most affected by the measure -- Harford's farmers.
The Harford County Farm Bureau worked hard with county planners, who drafted the plan after 18 months of sporadic meetings. But it's clear the bureau doesn't speak for a lot of the farmers, who apparently didn't attend the hearings.
It's not Harford County farmland, it's "our farmland," one irate farmer told the council. In fact, proper use of the land is a communal responsibility, as any farmer faced with a chemical plant located along his pastureland would quickly agree.
The debate highlights the historic mistrust between town and country, which are becoming more inter-dependent. Many farmers must work in town to make ends meet, while the urbanites increasingly exult in the pleasures of a pastoral surrounding. The Sunday tourist delights in vistas of green pastures, but rejects the smells and noise of the working farm. Farmers zealously defend their land, but don't want to be tied to unprofitable living museums to entertain others.
There's another good reason why farmers are wary of the plan. The state in recent years has siphoned funds from its agricultural land preservation program to cover budget deficits. That's left farmers with easements preventing them from selling their land for development, but with no money to compensate for their sacrifice.
The ambiguity and lack of specifics in Harford's plan have come under justifiable criticism, even though the plan strives to retain flexibility in implementation. "Rural character" and "scenic roads" are two such terms in the document that are rife with subjectivity. Debate over the plan should resume without delay, but also without an unreasonable deadline.