'TC To some observers the Harford County Rural Plan has become a political football, and debate on the issue reached the two-minute warning during the final public hearing Monday.
The outpouring of opinions has sent county planners back to the drawing board in an effort to come up with a proposal that would satisfy farmers. The County Council must pass the legislation by Oct. 6 or the plan will have to be withdrawn.
Council President Jeffrey E. Wilson told the near-capacity crowd in council chambers of his commitment to have a vote on the issue by the deadline. He then scheduled a work session for Oct. 5 at 6 p.m.
"If we can't meet the deadline, we will so state," Mr. Wilson said. "But please understand, I have made a commitment to the county executive to exhaust every effort to make this plan acceptable to everyone."
Two members of the council said the Oct. 6 deadline should be pushed back.
"I see no need for another work session prior to the deadline," said Robert S. Wagner, D-Dist. E. "I feel the council should delay voting until all the amendments are incorporated into the original document and it meets the approval of the farming community."
Joanne S. Parrot, R-Dist. B, said the council should not rush to vote without giving farmers a chance to make known all their concerns about the proposal. "The feelings generated during the three public sessions indicate the farmers need more time to study the plan and have its wording reflect their feelings," she said.
"It . . . disturbs me that Mr. Wilson is so concerned about meeting the deadline," she said. "He and the county executive have not been this close on any previous issue," referring to the often contentious political relationship between Mr. Wilson and Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann.
Mrs. Parrott added that there was really "no need to make this [plan] legislation." If the proposal had been presented as a resolution, the farmers would have been more in favor of it, she said.
"They [the farmers] see it as another intrusion by government to eventually drive the farmer out of business," she said.
Of the 20 or so speakers, no one captured the mood of the audience more than Sam Fielder. The 59-year-old Jarrettsville dairy farmer played a tape of his personal rendition of the "Zoning Board Blues," a country-western-type song which has been aired on local radio over the past few years.
Some in attendance sang along with the tape, which criticizes the county for a stream of zoning changes affecting farmland.
The majority of farmers are not in agreement with the Rural Plan as it is written. They would like to have more time to work with county planners to produce a document that they feel protects their long-term interests.
Donald Hoopes, president of the Farm Bureau, said that farmers "are intelligent enough to understand the plan." He said he was glad that so many had chosen to speak out during the public sessions and that farmers have not had enough time to study the plan.
"Things have been going too quickly," he said. Mr. Hoopes asked those who favored a delay in voting for the legislation to stand. Every farmer stood.
William G. Carroll, director of the Department of Planning and Zoning, had opened the third public session by saying his department is "willing to take as long as needed to make everyone happy."
Stoney Fraley, chief of comprehensive planning for the county, said the introduction was changed to clarify that the plan is a "set of guidelines" only.
He also said that his department "recognized the importance of economic development for the farmers" and that the transportation portion of the plan has been rewritten. He added that $1.5 million to $1.7 million has been set aside by the county to buy development rights.
Shirley Klein, whose family owns several farms as well as five supermarkets in the county, said that at today's prices those figures are not enough to cover demand if a many farmers decide to sell development rights at the same time.
The plan calls for the county to pay farmers $2,000 to $3,000 per acre. They would be allowed to sell development rights to 10 acres for every 100 acres they own.
The county would borrow funds on the bond market and use the money to pay farmers tax-free interest for 20 years. At the end of that 20-year period, when the bond matures, the farmer who owned a 100-acre farm would get a lump sum of $200,000 to $300,000.
Mike Barberry, a Darlington farmer, said his potential to stay in business is being taken away. "Once I sell my development rights the value of my land drops," he said. "Why should I take $2,000 when I can now get $60,000 to $100,000 [from independent developers] an acre?"
Many of the farmers said that they've been forced to subdivide portions of their land to subsidize their farms. They said their equity is tied to the land and see the plan as a government land grab.
Edgar S. Almony, a White Hall farmer, said he sold some lots in order to finance his farming operation. "I'd like to see others have the opportunity to do the same thing," he said. "I'm afraid this plan, which I consider too vague, will not give others [the chance] to do the same as I did."