Farm zoning accord sought

Carroll officials draft a cure for criticized law

State reaction awaited

January 17, 2002|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

Two Carroll commissioners have reached a compromise on revising a contentious zoning ordinance that led the Maryland Department of Planning to threaten to cut the county's coveted land preservation funds.

Commissioners Donald I. Dell and Julia Walsh Gouge said their proposed revisions, particularly one calling for clustering building lots on the least productive or untillable parcels of farmland, should be palatable to the state. Clustering building lots would leave more space open, and directing construction to untillable land would reduce the number of lots available for development.

Both provisions would seem to fall more in line with Smart Growth, Gov. Parris N. Glendening's initiative to control growth. State officials reserved comment yesterday. But when the ordinance was passed, it evoked a sharp response from the public and the state Planning Department, which said it would withhold $400,000 in Carroll's land preservation funds if the law was not changed by Feb. 15.

"If we are going to preserve ag land, we have to make clustering mandatory to guarantee we have good, open farmland," said Dell, a lifelong farmer. "If we don't make it mandatory, it will depend on each landowner."

Dell and Commissioner Robin Bartlett Frazier, who is on a missionary trip to the Philippines, outvoted Gouge and passed the ordinance.

Dell said he initially thought the ordinance would restore land equity farmers lost in 1978, when their ability to develop was reduced from one house for every acre to one house for every 20 acres. He said he was willing to live with an ordinance that might have created a few more lots because it would have increased value for farmers.

But Dell said he soon realized that it would be far more than a few lots.

The law would allow landowners to transfer development rights from their conservation land -- land often unsuitable for construction -- to their agricultural land. The transfer would mean that a landowner could develop one house for every 3 acres instead of one for every 20 acres -- the zoning standard for farmland since 1978.

Carroll has about 54,000 acres of conservation land. Transferring the development rights from land that would never sustain housing would increase the number of new houses significantly, possibly by more than 4,000, Carroll and state planners said.

In a further complication, farmers who have developed land under the old rules were inquiring about what they were allowed to do under the new ordinance.

"It was not long before people were asking if they now had more lots they could develop after they had long since used up the legal number," Dell said. "It would create havoc. I listened to the comments, pulled my thoughts together and think I have a compromise that will work for everybody."

Gouge, who has consistently criticized the law, said: "The way the law is written, it can eat up a whole farm. Good common sense has to play into this. We have to set up guidelines."

State planners called the zoning "the single largest step backward in rural land protection in Maryland in recent memory."

The proposed revised language says: "The created cluster will be designed to preserve the most tillable acreage possible."

Gouge said, "We feel there has to be a cutoff."

The proposal also deletes critical areas -- such as wetlands along streams -- from the total conservation acreage that could be transferred. State officials met with the commissioners last month and extended the deadline for changes from Jan. 15 to Feb. 15.

"We are waiting to have the opportunity to hear from the county as to what they are looking to do," said Kristen Forsyth, spokeswoman for the state Planning Department.

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