The Rash brothers' farm, where gentle hills of timothy and alfalfa once supported one of the largest dairy herds in Carroll County, is more than another patch of farmland, the brothers say. It is the key to their comfortable retirement -- a 401(k) plan with fertilizer.
"Working people have pension plans, stocks and bonds to cash in. A farmer has land. How we sell it determines what kind of retirement we have," says Glenn Rash, 68, who owns the 400-acre farm west of Route 97 with brothers Edwin, 73, and Claude, 61.
But to cash in their investment, the Rashes will need tomorrow to persuade the Carroll County commissioners to rezone more than 145 acres of farmland for an upscale golf course community with 50 homes.
If approved, it would be the county's largest rezoning in nearly 30 years.
County planning staff say it would set a powerful precedent for property owners seeking to develop their farmland -- opening a door that it would be difficult to close.
Farmers who might otherwise join the county's celebrated farmland preservation program would instead take a gamble on the more lucrative rewards of residential development, county staff say.
"I think that if the permanency of zoning is weakened, there will be less incentive to put farms in the agricultural preservation program," said Bill Powel, director of the county's farmland preservation program, which has a goal of saving 100,000 acres by 2020.
Those concerns have been discounted. Despite objections of the planning staff, the proposed change won the support of the Carroll County Planning and Zoning Commission, an appointed board that reviews rezoning requests, and is in the hands of the county commissioners.
A public hearing on the proposal is scheduled for 10 a.m. tomorrow in the County Office Building in Westminster.
To win approval, the Rash brothers must prove that a mistake was made in the original zoning of their property or that a substantial change has occurred in the character of their neighborhood.
The brothers say they can prove both. The county erred when it rezoned farmland just north of the Rash property for residential development but kept their land in an agriculture zone, the Rash family says.
The neighborhood changed significantly as new residents poured into South Carroll, clog- ing roads and making it impossible to operate a large-scale farming operation, the brothers say. Moving equipment from field to field became a battle with commuters, Glenn Rash said.
"When you take wide equipment on the road, it's not safe. [Drivers] pass on the double yellow line, on the shoulder -- anything to get past," he said.
But a report by county planners found that the brothers' case failed on both criteria. The property has been zoned for farming since 1965, when the county first adopted zoning laws. That status was reaffirmed in 1978 during the county's comprehensive rezoning. The land is used for farming today. Glenn Rash operates a hay and straw business on part of the farm and tenant farmers lease the rest.
Although the planners' report found that development in the neighborhood has been significant, the increased population and new housing were planned for many years ago. None of the changes has been a surprise.
"The farm's been zoned ag since day one. We did not feel we could justify changing zoning," said Jeanne M. Joiner, a comprehensive planner for Carroll County.
But planning commission member Maurice E. Wheatley, who voted to rezone the farm, said the proof of a substantial change to the neighborhood is in the numbers. Since 1981, the neighborhood's population has risen from 6,350 to 11,595.
"This is to me a substantial change," he said. "That's what I based my vote on."
Fears that changing the zoning would weaken farmland preservation are unfounded, Wheatley said.
"I believe that if you have a farm and the family wants to continue to farm and the next generation want to farm, they will not consider rezoning," he said.
Farmers who decide to leave farming should be given the right to have their land rezoned, he said.
Commissioner Donald I. Dell, who sits on the planning board, also voted in favor of the change.
A Westminster dairyman, Dell has always been a strong advocate of property rights. Although he declined to discuss the case before tomorrow's public hearing, Dell indicated in May that he would support the rezoning again when the case comes before the commissioners for them to make a final decision on the request.
Commissioners Julia Walsh Gouge and Robin Bartlett Frazier said they are undecided because they have not reviewed the case.
The Rash farm has been in the family since 1928, when the brothers' father quit his job as a telephone lineman and started raising a dairy herd. The brothers took over in the 1960s, expanding to include 3,000 acres in Howard, Frederick and Carroll counties. In 1988, after deciding that farming in the fast-growing suburbs was too difficult, they quit.