The fierce and twisting debate over Carroll County zoning law took another turn yesterday when the county's planning staff proposed amendments that would not only dilute the effects of a contentious ordinance but would eliminate a long-held development right for landowners.
Commissioner Robin Bartlett Frazier expressed immediate disapproval of the amendments, saying they would drastically reduce the flexibility of zoning laws. "This runs contrary to what I thought we were trying to accomplish by reviewing our zoning ordinances," she said. "I thought we'd have less government regulation."
Commissioners Julia Walsh Gouge and Donald I. Dell seemed more open to approving them.
The amendments "bother me to some extent, but on the other hand, I think we're offering landowners a tradeoff," Dell said. "We're giving them more flexibility, and we're asking them to do something for the county in return by leaving more farmland open."
The proposed amendments would make it impossible for landowners to carve large residential lots from their conservation lands, which they can do under current law. Landowners would have to cluster conservation lots and the average size of the lots could not exceed 1.75 acres.
The staff report was a step in the county's effort to compromise with state planning officials over the contentious zoning ordinance, which state planning officials say will prompt rampant development on Carroll's rural lands.
Last month, state officials threatened to decertify the county's vaunted farmland preservation program if the commissioners would not repeal the ordinance, passed in September. Because the commissioners seemed willing to compromise, state officials suspended their ultimatum, but the possibility of decertification exists if the commissioners don't alter the ordinance.
The measure allows landowners to transfer development rights from 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 normally is allowed in agricultural zoning.
The ordinance also changes the method for calculating the number of lots available on conservation land and yields greater development potential to landowners.
With its wording, the ordinance 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, state Secretary of Planning Roy Kienitz called it "the single largest step backward in rural land protection in Maryland in recent memory."
In addition to changing the rules for subdividing conservation land, the amendments proposed yesterday would change the method for calculating the number of lots available to any subdivision approved under the ordinance.
Instead of dividing conservation acreage by three, the new formula would subtract land unfit for development because of slopes, streams or other environmental impediments.
The formula then would divide remaining conservation acreage by 3.75 to reach the total number of available residential lots. Those lots would have to be clustered on agricultural or conservation land or across both. They would have to be placed on land least ripe for farming.
Critics of the ordinance have argued that it creates residential lots that could never have existed under old law, but the proposed amendments would substantially dilute that effect.
Dell, however, said the amended formula might be too complicated. He suggested the county grant landowners the right to subdivide as many lots as they can demonstrably build on their conservation lands.
County staff members will refine the proposed amendments based on such suggestions and on response from Carroll's planning commission and state planning officials. The amendments will go to a public hearing, probably late next month or early March. After the hearing, the commissioners will take a final vote on the revised ordinance.
Members of the appointed committee that helped write the ordinance responded harshly to the proposed amendments.
"That staff recommendation would be the most major down zoning this county has seen since 1976," said committee member Ed Primoff. "Farmers who have to borrow against their development rights would be in real trouble."
Frazier called the amendments a sneaky way of eliminating long-held development rights.
"If we want to do that, we should do it up front," she said. "This is just one more slice out of land rights. I'd rather see it go in the other direction."