Bill to ease farmland development opposed Subdivisions may overrun agricultural areas if plan is approved, officials say

March 17, 1996|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

Farming remains Carroll's leading industry, but subdivisions have been gobbling its fields for years. Now, while the county struggles to find new ways to control sprawl, slow-growth advocates say their legislative delegation is encouraging developers to take a bigger chunk of agricultural land.

State Sen. Larry E. Haines is sponsoring a bill that reinforces an 18-year-old promise to exempt farm lots from the county's "adequate public facilities" standards rules that prohibit new development unless roads, schools and other services are suitable.

The bill, which had the unanimous support of the Carroll delegation, passed the Senate Thursday. Mr. Haines said he expects no difficulty in the House.

Mr. Haines and the other members of Carroll's Annapolis delegation say Senate Bill 649 preserves farming and the property rights of farmers.

But Commissioner W. Benjamin Brown and other county officials argue that if the county enacts a proposed 20-month ban on new subdivisions, developers will begin snapping up farm lots.

Mr. Haines, a Westminster Republican and owner of a real estate business, said the legislation would allow farmers to develop up to six lots on their land without meeting adequate facilities requirements. With schools crowded and roads stressed to the limit, the county planning commission has denied several similar applications by farmers since November.

About 9,000 potential lots exist on land zoned for agriculture, Mr. Brown estimated. But Commissioner Donald I. Dell, a retired farmer who supports the Haines bill, said that number is closer to 4,000 and many of those will never be used.

"Farmers won't wholesale their lots," said Mr. Dell. "Some lots will still be there 50 years from now. I have done lots myself."

Del. Joseph M. Getty, a Republican, called the bill a fairness issue that deals with "commitments made to the ag community." Republican Del. Nancy R. Stocksdale said farmers are historically entitled to the consideration.

Zoning regulations enacted in 1978 cut farm equity 80 percent by changing the single building lot size from 1 acre to 20 acres. Farmers accepted the ruling with the understanding that the county would expedite approval for their lots in the development review process.

"In 1978, the county promised farmers, when they wanted to subdivide, they wouldn't have to go through the same long process as developers," Ms. Stocksdale said. "They trusted government and it has been working ever since."

About 180,000 acres of agricultural land remain, but the county is losing 1,800 acres annually. Last year, 123 of the 1,200 building lots recorded in Carroll were in the agriculture zone.

"The delegation's position is ag lots are not lots that have a major impact on adequate facilities," said Mr. Getty. "They represented less than 20 percent of the entire development in the county last year."

Farmers need flexibility in operating their businesses, Mr. Getty said. "Their equity is their land and they need to be able to use it to finance their business."

While the effect would be short-term financial benefits to farmers selling lots, in the long run it would hurt farming in the county, said Mr. Brown.

More residents will move into farm areas and complain about farming practices. New residential lots will change the nature of agricultural zones, clearing the way for eventual rezoning to residential, Mr. Brown said.

"My biggest nightmare is farming around houses," said Melvin Baile Jr. of New Windsor. "With a subdivision next door, I've got real problems if I spread manure on the wrong day."

Dan Hughes, founder of Solutions for a Better South Carroll, a community activist group, said the bill would undermine efforts to control growth and would encourage more building in agriculture areas.

"It impedes efforts to facilitate orderly growth and encourages sprawl," said Mr. Hughes.

The bill comes as roads and schools in many areas of the county are overburdened and residents are clamoring for a halt to growth. The County Commissioners have hired a nationally known growth expert to create an interim development control ordinance, which they hope to put in place next month.

Wayne B. Schuster, an Eldersburg resident, complained that there was no debate or public hearing on the bill.

"It deprives the planning commission of its right to review for adequate facilities," he said. "It circumvents the public process. The state should not be the forum to dictate local land use."

Pub Date: 3/17/96

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