Cluster zoning portends rural clash of lifestyles Balto. Co. officials prepare to review planning compromise

February 11, 1997|By Melody Simmons | Melody Simmons,SUN STAFF

When he looks across his wide meadow toward a bank of trees in northern Baltimore County, W. Clay Peterson sees a dream come true.

The 60-year-old White Hall farmer has been building the 216-acre cattle farm he's wanted to own since he was a boy growing up in the mountains of North Carolina.

"I've been working toward this for 40 years," he says. "I've taken it step by step, and I'm two, maybe three years away from it."

By early summer, though, Peterson fears it could all turn into a nightmare. His farm has become the focal point of a fight over cluster zoning -- a supposed compromise between farmers and developers that threatens to turn into a planning debacle.

Yards from Peterson's farm, a Lutherville developer proposes building Graystone Farms Estates, 34 luxury houses squeezed onto 1-acre lots in suburban fashion on a section of the 173-acre tract abutting the farm.

With houses next door, Peterson says, his farm will be devalued and his daily operations hampered.

The new community by Chapel Homes Inc. will take advantage of cluster zoning, which allows more intensive development than the one house per 5 acres that otherwise would be permitted on that section of rural land.

The idea is to contain the development in a smaller part of the property while a majority of the land remains open space.

But clustering -- a concept relatively new to the county -- has met with such bitter opposition in some areas that the county's planning chief calls it an "anomaly" subject to dismantling in the revision of the county's Master Plan, or development blueprint.

Even County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger, an architect of the cluster zoning legislation, has said the concept has not worked as expected.

"Without a doubt, we will change it," said Arnold F. "Pat" Keller, who heads the planning office. "It's been nothing short of a disaster."

Clustering was added to the county's zoning law in June 1992 to satisfy farmers and developers in areas with coveted green space. Yet, it has become a flash point for the conflict over such resources as watershed areas, woods and agricultural land.

In addition to Graystone Farms Estates, two other county developments -- 90-acre Mager's Landing and 172-acre Wesley Chapel, both in Monkton -- have been designed using clustering. Both have been opposed by rural neighbors, who tied up the plans in appeals for years. The projects are now preparing to break ground.

Cluster zoning is a national trend in rural areas and has worked in parts of Connecticut, according to William Carroll of the Maryland Office of Planning. It is permitted in some form in Harford, Montgomery, Kent and Howard counties, he said.

Although Gov. Parris N. Glendening did not address cluster zoning in his "Smart Growth" legislative package, state planning experts routinely endorse the policy as a way to protect rural areas, Carroll said.

In Baltimore County, clustering allows no more than 30 percent of a particular piece of rural land to be developed, leaving 70 percent to be preserved as prime farmland or ecologically sensitive areas such as trout streams, steep slopes or wetlands.

But community activists in some parts of the county fear clustering will interrupt storm water runoff, erode prime farm soil and cause aesthetic problems, such as cluttering the countryside with tract housing.

They have launched steady protests to county planning and zoning officials, and legal challenges based on environmental concerns. Fed up, county bureaucrats and politicians say the zoning, as allowed, is more trouble than it's worth.

Then there's the potential clash of lifestyles.

Near the Graystone Farms Estates site, longtime residents fear the community will lose its character, along with clear views of starry nights, lonely country two-lane roads and quiet living.

For farmer Peterson, the problem is more acute. In 1987, he placed his farm into a permanent preservation easement, which prohibits development of the land, in return for $153,000.

With Graystone Farms Estates next door, Peterson predicts his farm liability insurance rates will skyrocket, cows may wander and nibble on landscaped lawns and the pungent odor of manure in the summer heat could perturb the upwardly mobile neighbors.

"It's not common dog sense to have a farm raising beef cattle and then have a development right next to it," Peterson says. "I can't accept it."

The controversy reached courtside at the Jan. 26 Maryland-Duke college basketball game. That's when Peterson's neighbor, Wayne McGinnis, cornered Ruppersberger in the stands at College Park and asked him to intervene on Peterson's behalf. Ruppersberger has asked an aide to look into the matter.

McGinnis, who heads the state Agricultural Preservation Board, said the problem is a matter of trust because of Peterson's easement. In the meantime, Peterson has hired a Towson attorney to explore a possible court fight.

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