Zoning law raises alarm

Subdivisions possible on Carroll property used for agriculture

Contrary to Smart Growth

Measure could allow one residential lot for every 3 acres

October 08, 2001|By Mary Gail Hare and Childs Walker | Mary Gail Hare and Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

A new zoning law could change stretches of Carroll County's pastoral countryside by allowing small subdivisions to be built on land long set aside for farming.

Few people, including some Carroll officials, seem to know what the law means or how great its impact will be. But Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge said she has no doubt the measure was designed to open more farmland to development.

"The reality is that you can take land you could never develop and use [the ordinance] to develop agricultural land," said Gouge, who voted against it. "We could be making agricultural land wide open to development."

FOR THE RECORD - An article in the Maryland section Monday incorrectly stated the number of people who attended a public hearing Sept. 6 in Westminster on a proposed Carroll County zoning ordinance that would allow some farmers to develop land zoned for agriculture. The hearing was attended by 25 people. The Sun regrets the error.

Gouge and others predict criticism from Maryland officials because the law bucks the governor's Smart Growth initiative to curb sprawl.

"While I don't know the details, that would certainly undermine our Smart Growth efforts," Michelle Byrnie, a spokeswoman for Gov. Parris N. Glendening, said when told of the new law. "It promotes the exact opposite of Smart Growth principles by promoting development of agricultural land."

Cloaked in abstract language, the law allows landowners to develop one residential lot for every 3 acres - instead of every 20 acres, as is normally required under agricultural zoning.

Passed without significant review by county planners, the law was passed about two years after the commissioners voted to rezone the Rash farm near Woodbine to allow a golf community - a zoning decision that raised Glendening's ire because it violates Smart Growth.

"This will draw the state's ire more than anything else this county has done lately," said Ross Dangel, an Eldersburg resident and member of Freedom Area Citizens Council. "This could draw the state into local zoning."

The new law seems to encourage development on farmland when Maryland and states across the country are fighting to limit building to areas that have been developed, said John W. Frece, communications director for the Governor's Office of Smart Growth. "It also seems contrary to the good record of farmland preservation that Carroll County has had in the past," Frece said.

Commissioner Donald. I. Dell, who voted for the measure, agreed the impact would be "more homes, but not a lot more." He predicted little impact in a county lauded for its farmland preservation efforts. Commissioner Robin Bartlett Frazier joined Dell in supporting the new law.

The ordinance, however, raised eyebrows in the county planning office.

Bill Powel, who runs Carroll's farmland preservation program, said although he is gauging the likely impact, the law could conflict with the county's preservation efforts.

Carroll has placed about 35,000 acres of farmland in permanent preservation easements, but its goal is 100,000 acres during the next decade.

`Jeopardizing certification'

In a letter to the commissioners, Powel wrote, "I believe we are jeopardizing state certification of our agricultural land preservation program and other sources of land preservation fund."

He further wrote that Carroll should delay implementing the ordinance until the commissioners and staff understand the implications better.

Asked whether the commissioners should have demanded a study before adopting the law, Dell said such an action might not have made much difference because the particulars of each eligible property differ.

No residents at hearing

The ordinance was drafted by the nine-member, commissioner- appointed Zoning Ordinance Review Committee.

No residents attended a public hearing on the issue Sept. 6, and by all accounts, few people understood what it meant until the past few days.

Under the ordinance, landowners can transfer their right to develop one lot on every 3 acres of conservation land - land that often is impossible to develop - to adjoining land zoned for agriculture.

For example, 30 acres of conservation land could yield 10 houses on farmland.

Normally, zoning allows one house for every 20 acres of farmland.

"Simply because this ordinance is passed will not prompt the development of a single lot. There are many other reasons for a landowner to develop," said Charles D. Hollman, chairman of the zoning committee and a Westminster lawyerwho owns a substantial amount of land in North Carroll but has no development plans. "Now, when development does go forward, we have an ordinance that says how that will be accomplished and how it will be managed."

Dell and other supporters argue that the ordinance restores value to farmland without changing the permitted density of residential lots in the county.

While this argument is technically accurate, opponents said, residential lots will spring up on farms, so the ordinance's practical effect is pro-development.

Gouge said lots on farmland were not considered when the county adopted its latest master plan for growth.

`Abundance of building'

"We could have an abundance of building that we can't provide services for," she said. "None of this is accounted for as far as infrastructure."

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