Zoning puts Dell in middle

Commissioner open to amendments to preserve farmland

Extra 4,300 lots possible

Gouge and state oppose ordinance

Frazier supports it

February 08, 2002|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

Carroll Commissioner Donald I. Dell has scant experience being the swing vote on contentious county issues.

He and fellow Commissioner Robin Bartlett Frazier usually vote together, even in the face of biting criticism from the third commissioner, Julia Walsh Gouge, and Carroll community leaders and state officials. It seemed that routine would continue in September when Dell and Frazier voted for a divisive zoning law over objections from Gouge and state leaders.

But in the months since, Dell has backed away from aspects of the law to the point that he's leading a movement to compromise with state planning officials by amending it.

Dell says he wants the law amended because after months of considering criticisms from county staff members and Carroll residents, he realized it might have unintended consequences.

Others say he's backing away from the law because its unpopularity will mar his legacy as a farmland preservationist and hinder a possible re-election bid this year. Though Dell acknowledged he has become the pivotal vote in the dispute, he said he hasn't weighed politics when thinking about the law.

"That's just not the way I think," he said. "I look at an issue for what it is, and I may change my mind, but I'm always thinking about it in terms of whether or not all of Carroll County will benefit."

Frazier stopped short of criticizing Dell, but said lingering debate over the law has frustrated her because she had fully researched the matter and formed her opinion when she voted in September.

"I still think our first shot was the best," she said.

Gouge praised Dell's willingness to change.

"I think he was seeing the potential for effects that he had never expected, and finally he said, `Enough is enough,'" she said. "I'm thrilled that he's seen a different point of view."

The law in question changes the method for calculating the number of residential lots available on land zoned for conservation. It yields greater development potential to landowners by allowing the rights for those lots to be transferred to neighboring agricultural land.

The law could lead to an extra 4,300 homes on the county's rural land, state planning officials argue. 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 an ultimatum designed to force amendments to the law, Kienitz threatened to decertify the county's highly successful agricultural land preservation program.

Dell, a former dairy farmer, has often praised the preservation program as one of Carroll's jewels. He said the ultimatum had nothing to do with his willingness to compromise on the zoning law, but others have speculated that the ultimatum threatened his pride.

"I think losing money from the farmland preservation program would really hurt him," Gouge said.

Debate over the law places Dell squarely between two of his dearest philosophies. He has always lamented a 1978 zoning change that saw Carroll farmers lose development rights and significant equity. Anything that restores land rights and value appeals to him. But he has always favored keeping as much farmland open as possible.

Dell said he originally thought the law struck a good balance between the two, but he realized after months of examination that beyond offering landowners flexibility, the law might give some a chance to build far more houses than they could have previously.

He said he sees a core of good in the ordinance because it encourages landowners to cluster residential lots, leaving more open space, and because it offers landowners more options in configuring subdivisions.

Kienitz said he sees in Dell's change of mind an honest attempt to reconcile competing beliefs.

"He's not someone I know well, but from what I can tell, he comes from a strong, conservative background and also is a big believer in land preservation," Kienitz said. "So I think it's natural for him to be more in the middle on this issue than anyone else."

About two months after the law passed, Dell called for a work session to clarify the law's intent. His request and the state's interest in the law opened the door for negotiations that will probably carry into spring.

Many original supporters of the law said they see no malice in Dell's shift of opinion. The ordinance contains a loophole that allows development where none would have been before, said Ed Primoff, a member of the committee that helped write the law.

"I think Donald's just trying to see that nobody gets hurt, and nobody should get hurt," Primoff said.

Primoff described Dell as one of the most honorable people he's ever known. "I honestly believe [Dell] always tries to do the right thing, and that's why I will always defend him," he said.

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