On the zoning map, it's not easy being green


August 09, 1998|By MIKE BURNS

CONSERVATION is the most restrictive zoning classification in Carroll County. It's mostly open space, with a long list of possible low-density uses permitted. Conservation districts are colored green in the county's land-use Master Plan, to further that impression.

Like all classes of land use, the conservation acreage is subject to change and exception. It is not established in perpetuity as preserved land, protected under formal easement from change, as are the 29,000 acres of county farmland whose development rights have been purchased to keep them agricultural.

The latest version of the Master Plan, approved by the county Planning and Zoning Commission and awaiting final approval of the County Commissioners, seeks to change several conservation-zoned districts to more intensive use. These tracts are no longer suitable for conservation purposes, we are told. They should be employed instead for industrial and commercial development.

In a county that is so committed in rhetoric to farmland preservation, to paying farmers to keep their acres in agriculture, it's somewhat disconcerting to see even scarcer conservation areas disappear and resurface as development parcels.

Carroll County has an official goal of preserving 100,000 acres of agricultural land within another 18 years. But the county lacks a similar preservation goal for conservation areas, which afford a public environmental amenity that is not dedicated to livestock production or cash crops.

True, the conservation district includes agriculture right at the top of the list of principal permitted uses. The same for college campuses, group homes, government buildings, cable television facilities and golf courses.

Protecting water, woods

The description of conservation districts in the code says the purpose is "to conserve open spaces, water supply sources, woodland areas, wildlife and other natural resources." That idyllic definition sounds quite a bit different from the list of permitted uses.

Thumbing further through pages of the zoning ordinance covering conservation land uses, we find blacksmith shops and conference centers, firing ranges and country inns, veterinarian offices and churches. These conditional uses require approval by the commissioners, sitting as the Carroll County Zoning Board.

So it's not as if the conservation districts are without human imprint or structures. Homes can be built on conservation land, subject to a 3-acre minimum lot size, even though houses are banned from industrial-zoned districts.

That issue came before the commissioners two weeks ago, when a Union Bridge couple asked to rezone 3 of their 28 acres as conservation district so that their son could build a house next to the family's horse-fencing business.

The parcel in question had previously been zoned residential, but was changed to industrial in the 1991 countywide rezoning. Although abutting conservation, residential and industrial zones, the property was seen as more congruous with adjacent industrial land.

The current owners bought the property in 1996, knowing the industrial zoning. But they thought a request to convert the parcel to conservation, with its tight development restrictions, would be accepted by the county.

The commissioners rejected the petition. The family did not meet the legal standard to overturn the industrial zoning, they said. Besides, the county must severely limit "spot zoning," piecemeal rezoning decisions on individual properties, and stick with the comprehensive zoning plan, the officials said.

Strengthening business

But the bottom line was that the commissioners, sitting as the county's zoning board, didn't see any need to add a few acres to the conservation land inventory. Even when, as Commissioner Donald I. Dell pointed out, the result would have been a strengthening of the family business and not a loss of economic resource.

Indeed, the proposed land-use Master Plan that is before the commissioners for final approval aims to convert more conservation land (and farmland) to other purposes. The Planning and Zoning Commission voted to include those changes in the plan.

There's 17 acres of conservation property near Mount Airy that is tagged for commercial rezoning, 70 acres of land near Linton Springs to be changed from conservation and agriculture to industrial, and 115 acres of agriculture land near the Northern Landfill that would rezoned for industrial use.

The new Master Plan is the result of more than two years of work by citizen volunteers and professional planners.

It's the first comprehensive overhaul of the planning map in some 30 years. The effort to produce this document is not to be disparaged.

But it's curious that the county government views conservation districts as a land pool that is reserved for future development, rather than protecting and adding to them as public amenities. ++ Carroll should do more to conserve its dwindling conservation lands.

Mike Burns is The Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

Pub Date: 8/09/98

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