Farmers sow unified voice on growth County must manage land better but not at expense of agriculture, they say

June 30, 1996|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

Farmers are mobilizing to once again make agriculture Carroll County's leading industry and to play a greater role in the county's future.

"Farmers are going to be a lot more vocal," said Ed Primoff, who founded the Carroll County Landowners Association, a fledgling group with 25 members who own more than 5,000 acres of farmland.

The group is planning a stronger voice as the county reworks its master plan -- its blueprint for guiding growth. The county has about 180,000 acres of farmland; about 1,800 acres are developed each year.

C. William Knill, president of the Maryland Farm Bureau and a Mount Airy farmer, said the county must manage its growth and make better long-range plans, but not at the expense of agriculture.

He acknowledges the need to preserve farmland but notes that farmers need the flexibility to sell lots to finance their business.

"The county is not anti-farm; it's anti-growth," Knill said. "Farmers have to speak up before the next election and the new master plan."

In the 1998 election, farmers will campaign for candidates who understand their plight and support their views.

Developers and newcomers have the attention of the Board of County Commissioners, farmers say. They note, too, that agriculture has no representative on the Planning Commission, where most growth decisions are made.

The county has formulated many of its newer development controls at the insistence of people who do not understand agriculture, farmers say.

Primoff hopes those controls serve as a wake-up call for members of the once passive agriculture community, many of whom are joining the association.

"Farmers stay busy and have little time to get involved," said Bill Schneider, a Sykesville farmer. "We need to get together. We should have formed this group 10 years ago."

Farmers, many group members said, feel threats from developers, slow-growth activists and county government. To help finance farm projects, farmers must occasionally sell a few lots. Government regulations, however, are eroding those property rights.

"Many farmers made loans with the idea of selling off land," Primoff said. "Now, banks are saying farmers don't have development rights or security. The county wants us to keep farming, but they are taking our development rights away."

Hoping to regain some of their equity, farmers endorsed controversial Senate Bill 649, a measure that was supposed to reinstate an 18-year-old county promise to expedite farm lots through the development-review process.

The county made the promise when zoning regulations, enacted in 1978, reduced farm lot sizes from one per acre to one for every 20 acres. The General Assembly passed the bill, but the governor vetoed it.

Many farmers are finding the very land that provided them a living is depriving them of retirement. Stringent environmental controls and spiraling impact and development-review fees are making farmland less attractive to developers. Therefore, farmers have little choice but to continue working.

Harold and Esther Mercer tried unsuccessfully for two years to sell their 400-acre farm in Woodbine. Last year, they had their first and only offer, from WCBM-AM radio. The Baltimore County company wanted to build six 350-foot towers on a small parcel of the farm, but it had no plan for the remaining acreage. The Board of Zoning Appeals approved the project.

Neighbors of the Mercers opposed the sale, and the county outlawed multiple tower complexes in the agriculture zone before the proposal reached the Planning Commission. Attorneys for the Mercers have appealed.

"They changed the rules in the middle of the game," said Esther Mercer. "The right to a fair hearing was denied us."

Farmer Joseph A. Kuhn said those who chose to keep Carroll country -- a slogan Commissioner Donald I. Dell used successfully six years ago in his first campaign for office -- are being punished.

"What would you do if you started a savings account and 20 years later the county wants 90 percent of it?" Kuhn asked.

Rolling hills, acres of trees and fields filled with wheat and corn have attracted to Carroll many new homeowners, people who want to look out their windows at farms for years. Instead of losing farm acres to development, many want to call a halt to all growth.

Residents care more for scenery than for the farmers, Primoff said.

"Next thing, they won't want us to cut the corn or wheat so they can keep looking at it," said Primoff. "They take our development rights away. Most don't realize the sacrifices they are asking farmers to make."

Pub Date: 6/30/96

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