Carroll County's commissioners are poised to adopt right-to-farm legislation

October 25, 1994|By Amy L. Miller | Amy L. Miller,Sun Staff Writer

After more than a year of discussion and debate, Carroll County is ready to join seven other Maryland jurisdictions that have passed right-to-farm legislation protecting agriculture from nuisance suits.

Carroll County's commissioners voted yesterday to schedule a public hearing for the ordinance, which is aimed at reducing complaints against farmers by suburban neighbors bothered by smells and noises.

The commissioners, two of whom are up for re-election, plan to vote on the proposal before a new board is sworn into office Dec. 5. The third commissioner, Julia W. Gouge, chose not to seek another term.

"I still have some concerns," said Commissioner Donald I. Dell, a county grain farmer. "I want to make sure it fully covers farmers, that if one wants to start up an alternative ag project that's not specifically stated, someone will say he can't do it.

"But that will be addressed at the public hearing."

Seven Maryland counties -- Baltimore, Harford, Howard, Kent, Montgomery, Prince George's and Washington -- already have right-to-farm ordinances, said John Butler, a field services director for the Maryland Farm Bureau.

Carroll County officials, who began seriously considering an ordinance in March 1993, have said it would include a definition of agricultural operations covering all types of farming and practices necessary to bring products to sale.

It would not protect farmers who are not operating by accepted agricultural practices or are violating health or environmental laws.

The ordinance, which is modeled after one Howard County passed in 1989, would also give health officers the discretion not to investigate if they have already determined that the situation surrounding a specific complaint is not hazardous.

Also, the proposed ordinance would require that disclosure statements be given to home buyers, notifying them that they are moving into an agricultural area.

Discussion yesterday on the Carroll County ordinance -- which was originally proposed in the March 1990 county "Future of Agriculture" report -- revolved around whether a proposed grievance committee's decisions should be legally binding.

Howard County's ordinance does not call for such a committee but leaves enforcement up to the county health department, said William Powel, administrator of the Carroll County agricultural land preservation program.

The department usually consults the Howard County extension agency before making a final recommendation, Mr. Powel said.

But Carroll County farmers who helped draft the proposed legislation felt a grievance, or conflict-resolution, committee was necessary to informally spread information about farming practices, he said.

"What they were looking at was a committee to be informative to people who are moving into the rural environment," said Beth Evans, an assistant county attorney who drafted the ordinance. "They wanted someone to explain farming practices."

County officials decided yesterday that an advisory group whose decisions are not binding could achieve that goal because people would be less adversarial.

The group most likely would consist of someone familiar with the type of agricultural operation in the complaint, a suburban homeowner and a local business person, they said.

"Ninety-nine point 9 percent of the time, if you get people talking with someone who is knowledgeable about the subject, it will work itself out," said K. Marlene Conaway, assistant county planning director.

"With a community-type organization, most people will sit down and talk to a farmer with a couple of other people in the community. For that small percentage that can't be taken care of that way, they can still go to court."

Although Maryland legislators passed statewide regulations in 1991 that protected farms in existence for at least one year from nuisance suits, farmers say the law is vague.

Since that time, the state Department of Agriculture has encouraged jurisdictions to tailor ordinances to their specific circumstances.

For example, Washington County has written provisions to protect agriculture into its nuisance suit regulations and through planning and zoning ordinances, Mr. Butler said.

In April, Harford County added language to its Agricultural District regulations stating that any farm in such a district that is operating according to industry standards cannot be considered a nuisance.

The ordinance specifically allows the use of farm machinery late at night, which had been a common complaint in the county, Harford County Farm Bureau members said.

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