Monitor role spurs dispute

April 27, 1994|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,Sun Staff Writer

Under different circumstances, the Audubon Society of Central Maryland and the Howard County Conservancy might be the best of allies.

Instead, they are fighting a polite, but serious, battle over County Council approval of their right to guard open space created through cluster development in western Howard County.

Both groups want to preserve rural acres in the western part of the county, but they disagree about how to do it. Conservancy members say that having a paid professional is the only way to go. The group charges a fee for its services.

Audubon representatives say volunteers can do the job just as well. They do not plan to charge a fee if the council grants their request to join the conservancy as a monitor of open space in clustered developments.

The council is scheduled to vote on the issue Monday night.

The county requires developers who cluster homes on rural acres to keep a large portion of those acres free from development. County regulations require developers to sign an easement agreement with at least one nonprofit conservation group that then monitors the parcel to assure that the property is being properly preserved and inspects it annually.

Until now, the conservancy has been the only local nonprofit group to enter into such an agreement, and it is urging the council to continue that arrangement.

"I don't know how to assure that the land will be preserved using volunteers," says James H. Eacker, president of the conservancy, who opposes the Audubon Society's plan. "If you have a funded source [to pay] a full- or part-time person, you have a better chance of doing [the monitoring] in an appropriate manner."

Mr. Eacker says it is difficult to monitor property to assure that development is not taking place or that the property is not being used in violation of the agreement.

"It is not something easily done by volunteers," he says. "The ability to identify different species of birds is not a qualification for monitoring."

Audubon Society representative David Pardoe of Columbia says his group has the expertise to assure the long-term preservation of property.

"We are talking about property monitoring, not property management," he says. "My position is that if you have properties [to be preserved], people who have a vested interest in preserving those properties will be a lot more effective than having a hired person [inspect them] once a year. There is no stronger enforcement than a local body of concerned citizens with 'ownership' in natural lands in their community."

Mr. Pardoe is surprised by the opposition to the Audubon request. He says the society had not planned to become a party to preservation agreements until he read an article in The Sun on Dec. 30, 1993, saying that another preservation group was needed.

Mr. Eacker says the need has since been met and that the entrance of another group could jeopardize conservation efforts.

"What is important is long-term preservation," he says. Without close monitoring by a paid professional, preservation might be temporary, he said.

Violation of open space covenants has been a problem throughout the county, Mr. Eacker says. "We think a regular monitoring program is essential. There is a price tag for doing it right. We need a person on salary to do that," he adds.

The conservancy charges a one-time fee -- $200 an acre for the first 50 acres, $100 an acre for everything above 50 acres -- to monitor preserved parcels. It also charges $1,000 per property deed. It invests the fees and intends to use the interest to pay the salary of a part-time expert to monitor the properties.

Several developers already are complaining about the conservancy's fees, however, and some supporters of the group worry that developers would choose the Audubon Society, with its volunteer monitors, over the conservancy.

Mr. Eacker says the issue is not fees, but preservation. In fact, he says, the best way to preserve open space would be to put the properties into the county agricultural preservation program, adding that the conservancy would not receive a fee under those circumstances.

If a preservation group is doing its job, it will tailor an agreement to preserve a parcel, "taking it beyond what is required by the zoning to assure the best use" of the land, Mr. Eacker says. He says he thinks developers committed to long-term preservation will continue to deal with the conservancy.

The Audubon Society's Mr. Pardoe says the local chapter of his group can do just as good a job. The chapter's 850 households include people from all parts of the county, including professionals in environmental science, wildlife biology, botany, ornithology and related disciplines who have the skill and the will to monitor easements, he says.

"It is our conviction that people are increasingly looking for opportunities for direct, hands-on involvement in conservation matters, rather than just writing checks," he says. "The easement monitoring requirement would provide such hands-on opportunities, and we believe individuals would gain 'ownership' in the properties and insist upon their proper quality under the easement."

In a related development, council members, sitting as the Zoning Board, voted unanimously last week to let homeowner associations become parties to agreements on open space parcels in cluster developments. An agreement still would require participation of a nonprofit conservation group or the county government.

The Zoning Board's action is not official until members sign a decision and order implementing the vote, which is expected soon.

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