Conservation groups stretched thin in policing preserved land

December 30, 1993|By Erik Nelson | Erik Nelson,Staff Writer

Because a statewide land trust will not join a county effort to keep rural land from being developed, county planners say there are not enough conservation groups left to police preserved land adequately.

Since last year, county zoning regulations have required developers to protect large tracts by clustering home sites.

To ensure that the tracts are not developed, a nonprofit conservation group must hold easements (legal control over land use) on the land along with the county government or a second conservation group.

In an unexpected snag, the main group expected to protect the land, the Maryland Environmental Trust, has said it can participate only in a limited way, if at all.

"We have a tradition of accepting regulatory easements only in rare instances," Director Thomas Saunders said.

Other types of easements require the bulk of the trust's resources, he said. The trust has eight people on staff, three of whom are charged with processing easements statewide.

Without the trust, only the Howard County Conservancy, a local preservation trust formed in 1990, and the county government can monitor easements.

If either the conservancy or the county does not agree to hold the easement, a builder is prohibited from going ahead with a development.

If the land has historical value, an easement can be held by the Maryland Historical Trust.

The situation makes development by smaller land owners more difficult, if not impossible, according to Joseph W. Rutter Jr., the county's planning director.

To solve that problem, Mr. Rutter's department wants to change the county zoning regulations. He proposes allowing homeowners' associations to enforce the preservation easements.

"Who is going to be in a better position to police a preservation parcel than the people whose back doors back up to it?" Mr. Rutter asked.

Conservancy President James H. Eacker says he doubts whether homeowners' associations have the necessary expertise.

He also wonders whether the association's interests would be in conflict with those of preserving the land.

The group fears that an action by some future County Council, with the consent of a homeowners' association, could wipe out an easement.

"It is a serious mistake to open it up as broadly as this amendment opens it up," Mr. Eacker told the county Planning Board last week.

When the preservation-oriented regulations were enacted in 1992, county officials believed that other local conservation groups would be created, giving developers a choice of groups to give easements to. As yet, the conservancy is the only such group available.

So far, however, the conservancy will not commit itself to taking on all easements resulting from development in the west. Planners also fear that the conservancy's fees may be prohibitive for small property owners.

"At least once a year, someone's got to get out there and check what's going on on that property," Mr. Eacker said. Development is "a profit-making process, even for a small property owner. The property owner should be responsible for the cost of the monitoring."

He explained that the fee of $200 per acre for the first 50 acres and $100 an acre for remaining acres would be invested to help cover the cost of hiring someone to monitor easements in perpetuity.

Last week the county Planning Board heard Mr. Eacker and Mr. Rutter give their arguments on the regulation change.

Planning Board members recommended that homeowners' associations be added to the list of permitted easement-holders. Using Mr. Eacker's suggestion, they recommended that the associations be allowed to hold easements only if two other agencies are unable or unwilling to take them.

The final decision will be made by County Council members, sitting as the Zoning Board, after a public hearing that has yet to be scheduled.

Growth-control advocate John W. Taylor, an ardent opponent of the cluster-zoning approach, said he supported allowing homeowners' associations to hold preservation easements.

"I think it's important that the people who have to live next door to an easement have a part in keeping it completely open," he said.

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