Rejecting state concerns, Carroll rezones farmland

Planning officials say decision will create a powerful precedent

August 27, 1999|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN STAFF

Over strong objections by the state, the Carroll County commissioners approved yesterday the county's largest rezoning request in nearly 30 years, a landmark case that planners fear will swing the door open for residential sprawl in South Carroll.

In a 2-1 vote, the commissioners granted the Rash family permission to rezone 145 acres of their 400-acre farm west of Route 97 for a 50-home golf course community.

State planners say the case will create a powerful precedent for other Carroll farmers seeking to rezone their land for residential development and undermine the county's efforts to preserve farmland.

It may also endanger funding for roads, water, sewer and other county infrastructure projects because it runs counter to Gov. Parris N. Glendening's Smart Growth program, which is intended to curb suburban sprawl and revitalize older neighborhoods.

But Commissioners Donald I. Dell and Robin Bartlett Frazier dismissed those concerns, saying the state should stay out of local zoning issues.

Frazier said she was "appalled by the heavy-handed pressure" the Maryland Office of Planning put on the commissioners to deny the request.

"They have no weight in my decision," she said.

But Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge shared the state's fears and voted against the request.

Gouge said she was influenced in part by a phone call yesterday from a farmer's wife who said granting the rezoning would encourage many drought-stricken farmers to follow the Rashes' lead.

"I would like to see the farmland preserved if we can," Gouge said. "It's good land. It's still productive."

After the vote, Gouge, a longtime friend of the Rash family, stood facing the window of the third-floor conference room wiping tears from her eyes.

She said she was torn by the decision.

"This was hard," she said. "I have nothing against the Rashes."

Gouge said she would try to find state funds to preserve the farm before the family develops it.

But Ronald M. Kreitner, director of the Office of Planning, said it is unlikely any funding would be available.

"The state cannot be expected to bail out what in effect is a bad decision," he said in a telephone interview.

Other projects in jeopardy

Other Carroll county projects could lose state funding because yesterday's vote contradicts state goals directing development to existing communities, Kreitner said.

"They're calling for development outside priority funding areas, which is counter to Smart Growth. It's something they have the right to do, but they can't expect state support for infrastructure projects in that area," he said.

The governor's initiative has been at the center of several recent disputes between Carroll County and state officials.

This year, the state deleted proposed multimillion-dollar bypasses for Manchester and Westminster, saying they conflicted with Smart Growth. The state has also raised the issue in negotiations with the county over building wells on state land in South Carroll.

The Rash family -- brothers Claude, 61; Glenn, 68; and Edwin, 73 -- have been trying to rezone their property for about 10 years, saying they need the money so they can retire. The farm was once the headquarters for the brothers' dairy operations and later the center of a 3,000-acre corn, soybean and hay business.

"I'm glad they made a decision," said Claude Rash, who grinned after the commissioners' vote.

No early objections

Until this week, the Rash case had met little resistance from residents and no objections from the state. During a public hearing last month, about 25 people -- most of them neighbors of the Rash farm -- expressed their support for the plan. A small group of residents opposed it.

But Tuesday, the commissioners received a letter from Kreitner, asking the board to deny the Rashes' request.

"It is very likely that, if approved and unchallenged, the rezoning will establish a precedent for wider-scale sprawl subdivision in southwest Carroll County. The Rash Farm will then be used to replace the County's sound comprehensive planning and zoning program with the uncoordinated and haphazard results that are triggered by many of Maryland's major piecemeal rezoning decisions," Kreitner wrote.

Ultimately, he wrote, the decision would result in a pattern of sprawl that would "prove unsatisfactory to the community and more costly to the taxpayers of Carroll County."

But Kreitner's letter failed to carry much weight during yesterday's meeting. It was not accepted as part of the official record because it arrived about 20 days after the deadline for comment.

"This came up at the last minute," Dell said at the meeting yesterday. "It gave us some concern about how the state government will react. But I don't appreciate an appointed state employee coming in to make our decision."

`Relatively rare'

Kreitner, who did not attend the meeting, said yesterday that it is "relatively rare" for the state planning office to get involved in local zoning decisions.

Objections by the county's planning staff also did not sway Dell or Frazier.

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