Undeveloped land awaits hard decisions

March 01, 1995|By Erik Nelson | Erik Nelson,Sun Staff Writer

Joseph W. Rutter Jr. knows all about the search for peace and quiet. That's what led his family to rural Howard County in 1954. But his boyhood home is now called Town Center, Columbia's downtown, and Mr. Rutter has moved to Woodbine in rural western Howard County.

It's very fitting then that Mr. Rutter, as the county's planning director, faces the difficult task of balancing the development and preservation pressures competing over Howard's rural west.

Western Howard's future hinges on choices among many residents' desires to preserve its rural character, farmers' fears of losing their properties' values to development restrictions and the insatiable hunger of urban and suburban migrants for rural land.

The choices are about some of the last and most valuable stretches of undeveloped land in the booming Baltimore-Washington corridor.

At stake are huge financial and political interests and the passions engendered by homesteads and agricultural life. One Howard official grappling with these issues in recent years -- a member of a rural land use commission -- even reported receiving a death threat.

But over the past four years, Mr. Rutter has overseen creation of rules for developing the west county, rules he believes will protect its rural character from the changes that swamped his boyhood home.

Howard's vociferous slow-growth advocates are hardly reassured, and many county officials readily acknowledge few guarantees still exist when it comes to protecting a particular plot of land from development.

Just ask Janice Bossart. The University of Maryland biology researcher believed that a small wooded lot behind her house on Pindell School Road between Fulton and Columbia could never be developed because it is less than 3 acres.

Then one day this winter, she discovered red plastic markers tied to some of its trees. The owner of the lot, she was told, had traded development rights with another parcel's owner to legally sidestep the 3-acre minimum for development.

"Any day now, they're going to be growing houses over there," says Ms. Bossart, 37, pointing to the lot and beyond. "I need the solitude and the spaciousness. I don't like people all around me."

Such unpleasant surprises spawned the candidacy of Susan B. Gray, a Democrat from Highland, for the county executive's office last fall. Running a slow-growth campaign, she lost by a 2-1 margin to the incumbent, pro-business Republican Charles I. Ecker.

But voters also approved a county charter change giving them veto power over most significant land-use decisions, perhaps Ms. Gray's chief goal. Passage of the measure, known as Question B, gives Howard voters control over the county's two major growth plans -- its 1990 General Plan and its comprehensive rezoning efforts.

Nearly all county officials believe this is a bad idea, one that will deter rational plans in favor of scattershot efforts that wouldn't be blocked by citizen vetoes.

Instead, Mr. Ecker and other county political leaders favor containing growth through a combination of limits on total housing construction, zoning restrictions and farmland preservation efforts.

County housing construction limits were outlined in Howard's 1992 Adequate Public Facilities Act, which restricted annual building to between 2,500 and 3,000 housing units countywide. It also delays for four years any new developments in elementary school districts with overcrowding already exceeding 20 percent.

Slow-growth activists such as Peter J. Oswald of Fulton have little faith that the act's growth limits will survive development pressures. He says there is nothing to stop future county leaders from throwing out the limits, which fall to 1,760 housing units by 2004.

County Council Chairman Charles C. Feaga acknowledges that could happen. But he foresees the area's birthrate dropping so much after the turn of the century -- and with it, demand for school space -- that there will be room enough for many more newcomers to western Howard.

The best way to preserve rural land from development, he believes, is to pay farmers enough that it encourages them to put their farms into the county's farmland preservation program.

The county's growth blueprint, its 1990 General Plan, calls for purchasing development rights for 30,000 acres of western Howard farmland, or about 70 percent of the county's remaining agricultural land. So far the county has purchased about half that.

Unprotected

But slow-growth advocates focus on the rural areas in western Howard that the county isn't protecting: 682 acres stretching between Marriottsville and Woodstock and 820 acres of farmland in Fulton. Both areas were designated "mixed use" in the 1990 plan.

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