Specifics of zoning law to be discussed

Commissioners seek to address farmland development fears

Carroll County

November 14, 2001|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

Reacting to widespread criticism, the Carroll commissioners asked yesterday for a meeting with county planners and farmland preservationists to discuss how the county will implement a recently passed zoning law that many say promotes development on farmland.

Among the three commissioners, Julia Walsh Gouge appeared to be the only one interested in substantively changing the law. But it was Donald I. Dell who called for the meeting, saying the commissioners should at least respond to questions and concerns that have arisen in the past month.

Several county staffers, including Planning Director Jeanne Joiner, expressed reservations about the wording of the law during discussion with the commissioners yesterday. Joiner said the law "has the overall potential to increase the density of houses in rural parts of the county," an effect that runs directly counter to Gov. Parris N. Glendening's Smart Growth agenda.

County rules allow landowners to build one house per 20 acres on land zoned for agricultural use and it allows one house every 3 acres on land zoned for conservation. The new law allows landowners to transfer their development rights from their conservation land to their agricultural land. A landowner with 15 acres of conservation land can build an extra five house on his agricultural land, even if his conservation land is too soggy or steep to support five houses.

No one knows how many landowners gain significant extra development rights. Commissioner Robin Bartlett Frazier said she thinks only a few such cases exist. But Bill Powel, director of Carroll's agricultural land preservation program, said many such properties could lie along stream basins, where conservation land is most concentrated.

The law might be better, Joiner suggested, if it allowed the landowner to build only as many houses on agricultural land as could be built on the corresponding conservation land. Such wording would rely on reality rather than a formula, she and others said, and keep the new law from increasing the overall density of houses in the county.

Frazier remained a staunch supporter of the law, which was created by the appointed Zoning Ordinance Review Committee this summer and passed by the commissioners in September. The law is consistent with the county's master plan and Smart Growth, Frazier said, because it encourages landowners to cluster development instead of spreading it out.

The law also will help the county maintain open space, she and other supporters have said, because once a landowner has used it, he can't further subdivide the rest of his property.

Powel, however, questioned the permanence of that aspect of the law. Property owners can always petition the planning commission for more development rights, he said.

Dell said the commissioners won't know the real impact of the law until it has been in place a few years.

"We just can't sit here now and say this is the way it's going to be. It's going to be different for each individual farm," he said.

Maybe the law shouldn't go into place while so much uncertainty remains, Gouge responded. "If we're sitting here debating how it will work, how can the average citizen possibly figure it out?" she asked.

All three commissioners agreed that the specifics of the law merit further discussion. They then agreed to meet with the planning commission, planning staff, the ordinance review committee, the agricultural preservation board and other groups within the next month or two. Dell's suggestion for the meeting followed statements by Gouge and Joiner that the law didn't generate much discussion before it passed because people didn't fully understand it.

Such discussion should have occurred before, Frazier said, so "this didn't look like we have a problem."

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