A crowd filled a Carroll County hearing room last night to register disapproval of a new zoning law that many say will spur unwanted development across the county's rural landscape.
Residents filled every seat in the room, and the crowd spilled into the hallway. An overwhelming majority of the more than 40 residents who spoke said they want to see the law repealed. The crowd of about 100 cheered each time someone bashed the law and booed whenever someone spoke in favor of it.
"This [zoning law] to me doesn't seem to correct any problems and doesn't seem to have been asked for by anyone," said Donald Hoffman of Finksburg, the first speaker of the night.
The law in question allows landowners to transfer development rights from their conservation land to their agricultural land, meaning landowners could develop one residential lot for every 3 acres - instead of one every 20 acres, as is normally allowed under agricultural zoning.
It could, the state Department of Planning argues, lead to an extra 4,300 homes on the county's rural land.
Disagreement over the merits of the law showed few signs of abating at the meeting between the Carroll commissioners, state and local planning officials and concerned residents in the county office building in Westminster.
Commissioners Robin Bartlett Frazier and Donald I. Dell repeatedly have stated that the law, which they voted for, will benefit the county overall. Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge has pushed for repeal or at least a temporary freeze of the law until its impact can be better gauged.
Dell called for last night's meeting after a discussion between the commissioners and county staff ended in confusion over how to implement the law. The commissioners passed the law in September.
South Carroll activist Neil Ridgely called the law a new low for the county's government and "a conspiracy against logical planning."
Several residents wondered how the county could proceed with implementing a law that so few people seem to fully understand. During presentations last night, representatives from the county and state offered strikingly different visions of the law's impact.
"What our belief has been as we've formulated this law is that it will yield some more lots but not a huge number," said Charles Holl- man, chairman of the appointed committee that helped create the law. It remains impossible to determine how many new houses will spring up under the law, Hollman said, but misconceptions about the law have inflated projections of the impact.
The law's impact is uncertain, agreed Joseph Tassone of the state Department of Planning. But Tassone reiterated state projections that the law will create 31 percent more houses than could have been built under the old laws.
Another new concern surfaced yesterday when school board President Susan Krebs questioned the effects new development might have on South Carroll's crowded schools. She asked the commissioners to consider that question while debating the law.
Discussion of the issue has intensified since last week, when the state Planning Department announced it would revoke certification of Carroll's highly successful agricultural land preservation program if the commissioners don't repeal the law by Jan. 15.