Questions surround proposal to redesignate preserved acre Developer seeking to build house on land

October 23, 1997|By Del Quentin Wilber | Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

Although it involves only one of the 17,000 acres of preserved farmland in Howard County, a measure before the County Council to redesignate that acre as a buildable lot could have wide-ranging implications for the county's land-preservation program.

The acre, in a Woodbine subdivision, was designated a preserved parcel by the developer just before he submitted his subdivision plans for approval in 1995 and has little environmental value, officials said.

The developer, Charles W. Schroyer, intended to build a house on the plot, but the county Health Department rejected that plan after a study raised concerns about how septic tanks would affect nearby wells.

As a result, Schroyer designated it a preserved parcel, with the county and the subdivision's homeowners' association holding an easement on the property.

Last year, the Health Department conducted more tests -- after Schroyer hired new engineers to survey the land -- and determined it could handle the septic field.

Building on the acre wouldn't affect the proportion of land set aside, officials said, because Schroyer had dedicated nearly 80 acres to preservation for the rest of the development.

"I don't understand why anyone would even be interested in this," Schroyer said. "I was going to build it anyway."

Officials said that they are in unknown territory because such a redesignation has never been requested. Preservation activists fear that if building is allowed on the land, it could set a precedent for others with land in preserved status to request a change.

"This one acre in and of itself is no big deal," said John Taylor, a slow-growth activist from Highland. "This is about the preservation and integrity of easements."

Taylor also criticized the fact that the measure is before the County Council as a resolution, not a bill. A bill could be subject to voter referendum; a resolution is not.

"Would citizens take this to referendum? I don't know," Taylor said. "But this involves a permanent land issue, and they should have the right."

Susan Gray, also a slow-growth activist and the 1994 Democratic nominee for county executive, said the measure could open a floodgate of development on preserved land if the council approves it.

"They're playing a shell game, a sham," Gray said, referring to the council resolution. "What happens when land runs out and developers ask the council to [redesignate] preserved land?"

Joyce Kelly, president of the Howard County Conservancy, a land trust, said she worried that the council might undermine the purpose of the preservation program.

"Someone else could just come back and say they meant to develop the land but didn't," Kelly said. "This is extremely dangerous."

Planning Director Joseph W. Rutter Jr., who backs the resolution, said the Schroyer case is unique and shouldn't affect the preservation program.

"Perpetual easements can be released," Rutter said. "We're not setting a precedent. We're doing something under very unique circumstances."

Councilman C. Vernon Gray, an east Columbia Democrat, said he opposes the change because he believes the preservation program should be permanent.

Pub Date: 10/23/97

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