Growth, preservation in the balance

A single piecemeal rezoning decision may seem appropriate for a specific property, but the cumulative effect of such unplanned decisions can be devastating ...

February 01, 2000

LAND USE and growth management, two sides of the same coin, are the crucial challenges facing Carroll County government. Without a comprehensive plan for development and preservation, the county's future welfare is greatly at risk.

This isn't just about adopting a completely overhauled land Master Plan (last done 35 years ago) or budgeting money for farmland preservation or building new schools and roads.

Land-use planning is much more. It's a thoughtful pattern that overlays many of the decisions made by the county commissioners and county agencies. It impacts taxes as well as the quality of life that residents esteem. The eight incorporated localities also influence land-use policies within -- and outside of -- their borders.

Doing things the other way -- rezoning individual parcels of land without regard to a plan -- creates a patchwork development map as well as significant legal precedents for further assaults on land-use planning in Carroll County. That practice affects water and sewage, transportation, public safety, schools and environmental protections.

A single, piecemeal rezoning decision may seem appropriate for a specific property, but the cumulative effect of such unplanned decisions can be devastating to the welfare of the county.

A glaring example of that occurred last year, when the county commissioners voted to rezone 145 acres of traditional farmland in South Carroll for residential development.

The case is seen by many -- including the citizen groups that are appealing the decision in court -- as a watershed event for future loss of agricultural land, despite the county's stated goal to preserve 100,000 acres as a public amenity.

By finding that significant change had taken place in the South Carroll neighborhood, and that the property should have been rezoned in earlier decisions, the commissioners approved the development. They thus left the door open for any farmer seeking development riches on his land, creating a foothold precedent.

The circumstances were not egregious, although it was the largest Carroll rezoning case in nearly 30 years. Edwin, Glenn and Claude Rash, who owned the property, had been trying for years to convert their fields into a residential subdivision, as their retirement nest egg. The brothers' previous plans for dense residential development of the site had been rejected by the county.

This time, they proposed a 50-home golf course community for the property. It was a better proposal than past plans, and two of the three commissioners agreed to rezone the land residential -- although the rezoning decision does not technically restrict the brothers to that specific plan.

The lack of a completely updated land- use plan on which to base zoning decisions was obvious.

That lack of a Master Plan also results in outdated views of which land should be used for badly needed industrial development in Carroll. Sites once proposed for industrial development have been converted to residential and commercial use. The county needs another 1,000 acres of ready land to lure more industry, says economic development chief John T. Lyburn.

The Master Plan overhaul began four years ago. The lengthy document, prepared by more than 100 volunteers and by county staff, was delivered to the commissioners 18 months ago. That board of commissioners shelved the plan, arguing a new board elected in November 1998 should deal with it.

But the new commissioners have sat

va04 for 13 months without acting, aside from saying that they found much to dislike in the original proposal; they promise it will be considered this month.

Their main complaint is that the plan is too long and detailed. The commissioners want broad goals and little specific restraint on their authority.

That's much like the Strategic Plan adopted as a road map by the commissioners last year, a hodge-podge of apple-pie objectives that provides an excuse for any and every kind of land-use decision.

Adopting a revised Master Plan is a priority for Carroll County. But adopting a plan without specifics is simply a stamp of approval for the commissioners to make up development decisions as they go along. Carroll doesn't need more of that.

For example, the plan as now written reiterates a goal of preserving 100,000 acres of farmland by 2020, with industrial rezoning for a mere 223 acres.

How the county will reach the farmland preservation goal is unclear. Commissioner Donald I. Dell, a farmer advocate, suggests borrowing to buy development rights from farm owners, but he rejects the idea of earmarking taxes for it. Commissioners Julia Walsh Gouge and Robin Bartlett Frazier are wary of adding more county debt.

With 31,000 acres protected by the county and state programs, the county goal will be unreachable without a strong acceleration. Presumably, there are sufficient agricultural landholders willing to sell their development rights.

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