Zoning law spurs debate on land use

It allows owners to shuffle designations on types of acreage

Conflict of interest raised

Undermines state, threatens rural areas, critics say

November 11, 2001|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

The way Ed Primoff sees it, he's doing Carroll County a favor by developing his 190-acre property under a contentious new zoning law that will afford him a few extra lots.

The math is simple, Primoff said last month on a drive around his heavily wooded property in Woodbine. Under the old law, he would have developed between 34 and 37 homes across about 100 acres.

Under the new law, he will develop 40 homes on 40 to 50 acres, leaving an extra 50 acres of woods and farmland untouched. Better still for the county, he argued, the law will require him to keep the remaining 150 acres of his property undeveloped forever.

A few extra houses for a bunch more open space. "How could anyone argue with that?" Primoff asked.

Plenty of people, as it turns out, for many reasons.

Since the ordinance became public knowledge, Primoff and the other eight members of the appointed Zoning Ordinance Review Committee that recommended passage of the law have faced criticism from state officials, anti-growth organizations, land-use activists in South Carroll and the county's own planning staff.

At the heart of the issue lies a provision that allows landowners to transfer the development rights for their untillable conservation land -- about 54,000 acres countywide -- to their agricultural land, which totals about 191,000 acres countywide.

In theory, this should lead to more concentrated groups of homes, not more total development, advocates of the law contend.

Critics said it will inspire more overall development of farmland.

But what has galled committee members most are charges of conflict of interest by South Carroll activist Neil Ridgely and former committee member John Lopez. Primoff's quick use of the law, which he helped write, has drawn the most scrutiny.

Primoff said he could have made more money under the old rules, developing 3-acre lots among the towering oak and cherry trees, which part to reveal a trickling stream. Such lots would have fetched between $150,000 and $250,000 each according to various surveyors, Primoff said. The smaller lots on his Route 97 farmland will sell for about $100,000 each. With reduced profit incentive, there's no conflict, he said. He said he used the law because he would rather keep the bulk of his property unmarred by homes.

Committee Chairman Charles D. Hollman and committee member Bette J. Beard's husband also own conservation land. Hollman said he has no plans to develop his 20-acre parcel near Hampstead. The Beards own such a small sliver of conservation land that the law apparently gives them no advantage. The rest of the committee includes a real estate agent, a land-use attorney, a railroad manager, a retired state police major and a prominent Westminster businessman.

"I don't think charges of conflict are justified, though I understand the cynicism people have about government and the political process," said Clark Shaffer, the land-use attorney on the committee.

Several ethics experts outside Carroll said that neither the composition of the committee nor Primoff's use of the ordinance seemed improper.

"I don't see either as likely to be in violation of an ethics law," said Walter Schreiber, chairman of Montgomery County's board of ethics, who teaches a class on the subject to Maryland Municipal League members.

Schreiber said the fact that committee members made recommendations but had no power to pass laws insulates them from conflict charges.

Most critics simply believe the group recommended a bad law.

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

But that was never the intent of the law, committee members said.

Most described it as a tweak that they thought would simplify life for farmers and create more open space.

Supporters of the law point to 1978, when Carroll radically changed its zoning laws in hopes of preserving the county's rural character. Instead of being able to build one house an acre, owners of farmland could suddenly only build one house for each 20 acres. The change made large-scale development on farmland nearly impossible and in the process, farmers argue, robbed the land of significant value.

People such as Primoff and Commissioner Donald I. Dell, a retired dairy farmer, have since fought to restore value to farmland. Many farmers have no other security and have trouble borrowing money with their property as collateral, Primoff, Dell and others said.

But state officials see it as a strike against Smart Growth and said they're exploring ways to fight it.

"The driving principle [of Smart Growth] is to preserve farmland and to sustain the agriculture industry," said Michelle Byrnie, a spokeswoman for Gov. Parris N. Glendening. "This action directly contradicts both those purposes. The state is looking into appropriate actions."

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