Western Howard County land set aside for preservation might end up being used for a fire station, a police outpost or other development if a proposed change in a county zoning regulation is approved, conservationists fear.
A two-sentence amendment would reduce the number of parties who would have to agree to any change in the status of preserved land owned by the county, the state, the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission or a homeowners association.
Two independent parties must now be found to serve as trustees for the land. The revision would reduce the two easement holders to one.
County planners say the change is not designed to erode controls on development. Instead, they are hoping to make it easier for landowners to donate their parcels to public or quasi-public groups - which, they argue, would not want to thwart preservation.
But conservationists are concerned that the change from two easement holders to one would eventually make it easier to build on once-preserved land.
"If you've weakened the safeguards ... then you're going to have consequences," said John W. Taylor of Highland. "It's not preservation if you're building public facilities on it."
The proposed amendment would affect tracts preserved through cluster development, a type of subdivision in western Howard where one house is allowed for every 4.25 acres - except the houses are clustered, leaving blocks of open space for farming or other activities. Since 1992, when cluster zoning was approved, more than 5,200 acres have been preserved this way.
This preserved land may be transferred by the developer to anyone - a business, a homeown- ers association, a farmer.
Groups permitted to protect the land as easement holders are Howard County, Maryland Environmental Trust, Maryland Historical Trust, land conservation organizations and homeowners associations. The owner of a parcel cannot hold the easement on the property, said Marsha McLaughlin, deputy director of the planning department.
If the regulation change is approved, it would not affect current preservation tracts, she said. McLaughlin said she also does not expect the amendment to affect many new parcels because preserved land is nearly always owned by private individuals - so two easement holders would still be required.
Lawmakers originally decided to require two easement holders on land preserved through development because residents were concerned that it would be easier to rescind restrictions if only one group acted as a watchdog, McLaughlin said.
But McLaughlin insisted that such an outcome is a possibility only when the landowner is a private individual. When the owner and the easement holder are public or quasi-public, the land is safe, she said.
"I'm not aware of situations where the state has sold pieces of land so they could subdivide against their parkland," she said.
Still, land preservation groups think it is always better to have more than one easement holder.
"The more parties you have, the safer you're going to be," said Ann Jones, vice president of the Howard County Conservancy, which holds nearly 50 easements. "Two is the minimum. Three is best."
Nick Williams, coordinator of local land trust assistance with Maryland Environmental Trust, said requiring more than one easement holder is preferred because someone should be paying attention to the parcel - and, he said, counties have a reputation of not paying attention.
"We find that local jurisdictions are doing an abysmal job of monitoring and enforcing those easements," he said.
Activists alarmed by the proposed amendment say they doubt the county holds preservation as a high priority, despite bringing more than 23,000 acres into the program.
"It is not even a firm deal ... with two easement holders," said Susan Gray, a Highland land-use attorney. "But at least it's better than having one. Howard County has a long history of giving Howard County land to developers or selling it to them for next to nothing."
The proposed amendment is one of many being considered by the County Council, which will hold a public hearing on the issues at 7:30 p.m. tomorrow in the George Howard Building in Ellicott City.
The council is expected to vote on the zoning package Nov. 5.
County Councilman Allan H. Kittleman, a Republican who represents western Howard, said he has not decided whether to oppose the change to one easement holder but can see why residents are concerned.
"It makes sense. You have two for a reason," he said. "You want to make sure a preservation parcel stays preserved."
But he said that regulations allow for development on land that is supposedly preserved. The rules permit public schools, commercial feed mills, communications antennas, swimming pools, country clubs and golf courses, with special permission.
"If we really want it to be based on agriculture, maybe we should limit it to agriculture," Kittleman said.