Impressed with the Carroll County commissioners' willingness to compromise on a contentious zoning law, the state secretary of planning has delayed a Jan. 15 ultimatum that the county change the law or lose $400,000 in state money for farmland preservation.
Secretary Roy W. Kienitz met with the commissioners and county planning staff members yesterday and left feeling "that there's every sign we're moving in the right direction" in negotiating changes to a law many say allows out-of-control development on the county's agricultural land.
An ultimatum would quickly return if negotiations between the county and state stall, Kienitz said.
"I think this was the meeting we needed to have," County Commissioner Donald I. Dell said. "The secretary was here, and he was honest with us about what the state wants. Now, we have a lot to think about and sleep on."
The law, passed in September, allows landowners to transfer development rights from their conservation land to their agricultural land, meaning they can develop one residential lot for every 3 acres instead of one for every 20 acres, as is normally allowed in agricultural zoning.
The law also changes the method for calculating the number of lots available on conservation land and yields greater development potential to landowners.
With its current wording, the law could lead to an extra 4,300 homes on the county's rural land, the state argues. In a letter Dec. 6 to the commissioners, Kienitz called it "the single largest step backward in rural land protection in Maryland in recent memory" and delivered an ultimatum: Repeal the law by Jan. 15 or lose state certification of a vaunted agricultural land preservation program.
After the meeting he said: "I see in the commissioners a true willingness to work on this law so that it still does what they want it to do, but also does what we want it to do. As long as I see that process moving forward, I'm willing to hold off on any action."
Kienitz did not set a new deadline for revision or repeal of the law, saying he would hold off as long as the two sides appear to be progressing in their discussions.
Commissioners Dell and Robin Bartlett Frazier have steadfastly supported the law, but they also left the meeting optimistic about a potential compromise.
Frazier budged less than Dell but said, "I think we can set some guidelines that address their concerns but also keep the intent of what we want to do."
Frazier and Dell say the law gives landowners more flexibility and creates open space because once a landowner uses it to develop on a property, the remaining land cannot be further subdivided. Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge has been an outspoken critic of the law. She called the meeting a positive step toward changing it.
Other critics seemed cautiously optimistic. "We'll see, but it seems like there might be some room to work now," said South Carroll activist Neil Ridgely.
Yesterday's discussion between Kienitz and the commissioners centered on the question of how many lots 54,000 acres of conservation land would yield.
A person who owns 30 acres of conservation land could in theory put 10 residential lots on that land under the old and new laws. But much of the county's conservation land is steep, in floodplains or otherwise flawed for development. In practice, that person might only be able to build six homes on the 30 acres.
The old law would have allowed the landowner to build just those six homes. But under the new formula, the landowner would have the ability to build on all 10 lots by transferring some or all development rights to a neighboring plot of agricultural land. In this way, the law conjures lots that never could have existed before.
How many has become a point of disagreement between state and county. County planners say that during the past 10 years, developments on conservation land have yielded about one lot for every 3.75 acres. State planners argue that the county's remaining conservation land might yield about one lot for every 6 acres.
If state and county planners can reach a compromise figure, that number might replace the 3-acre figure used to calculate lot yield in the law. Such an amendment would address Kienitz's concern that the law will create thousands of homes that could never have been built under old laws.
Dell seemed skeptical of such a numerical solution, saying it might confuse the process more. Frazier and Gouge seemed hopeful the departments could compromise.
Kienitz suggested three other modifications that he said might reduce the law's negative impact on farmland preservation:
The law could be changed to keep landowners from transferring residential lots to more than 15 percent of their tillable land.
The law could be changed to require that for every four lots a landowner creates, the landowner give up rights to develop one lot.
The law could be changed to require that once a landowner subdivides a property, the rest of the property goes into a permanent preservation easement.
County staff members also suggested a specific limit on the size of lots that could be built on agricultural land. Dell and Frazier said they would consider those suggestions but offered no promises. The commissioners said that between Jan. 30 and Feb. 15, they want a report on the progress of meetings between county and state staff.
Kienitz reiterated that if the county Planning Commission approves any development plan under the law before negotiations end, state decertification of the farmland preservation program would kick in immediately.