Zoning debate is roiled by plans

Developers seeking proposals' OK under disputed law's terms

February 11, 2002|By Mary Gail Hare and Childs Walker | Mary Gail Hare and Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

Despite the uncertain future of a widely debated Carroll County zoning law, four developers have submitted subdivision proposals that would use the law to spread 150 new homes across farm and conservation land.

Pine Brook Farms, a 109-acre subdivision in Woodbine proposed by Mueller Homes of Howard County, and the 41 lots proposed by Catonsville Homes for the 89-acre Davidson farm in Finksburg, will go before the county planning commission this month. The builders seek to use provisions of the contentious law to develop site plans. With the commission's approval, the projects could proceed through the county's lengthy development review process.

The planning commission has reviewed Hood Hills in Gamber - 21 lots on 43 acres to be developed by Jim Kohler - and Freedom Hills, where Woodbine farmer Ed Primoff plans 40 homes.

The commission allowed both proposals to go forward, but members stressed that their decisions constituted neither approval of the plans nor a position in the debate over the law.

County and state leaders expressed differing opinions on whether developers should submit proposals under the law when its final form remains uncertain.

Commissioner Robin Bartlett Frazier said even if the law is amended, plans submitted before changes are made should be subject to the law as written now.

"Anytime something good is being threatened to be taken away, people try to get in under the line," she said. "If the law is what it is, we have to follow it."

Commissioners Julia Walsh Gouge and Donald I. Dell, however, said developments should not be grandfathered in under the original provisions if the law changes. State officials offered similar views.

"We'd take a very dim view of any attempt to grandfather subdivisions in under the form of the law that would most favor them," said Roy W. Kienitz, Maryland's secretary of planning. "That just doesn't strike me as reasonable policy."

The law, enacted in September, 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 ordinance could, the state Department of Planning argues, lead to the building of as many as 4,300 extra houses on the county's rural land - 31 percent more than could have been built under the old laws. The state has threatened to withhold funds from Carroll's farm preservation program unless the ordinance is repealed or amended.

"If we lose our preservation certification at the state, it could jeopardize the entire program," Melvin Baile Jr. of the county commission said. "That $400,000 is our money from property transfer taxes collected in Carroll County. We are entitled to it and now it could go to another jurisdiction."

Carroll has about 54,000 acres of conservation land, much of it unsuitable for construction because of wetlands, terrain and stream banks. Transferring the development rights from land that would never sustain housing would increase the potential number of new houses significantly and could absorb farmland.

Baile, who farms about 800 acres near New Windsor, said he has yet to see the two newest state secretary of planning proposals, but has seen several different proposed revisions to the law. A plan to cluster lots on conservation land would win his approval, but he strongly opposes development on agricultural land.

"If we want to preserve agriculture, we just don't have the luxury of developing farm acres," Baile said. "This law is putting lots in the [agricultural] zone that would never have been there."

Pine Brook Farms could be the most problematic of the four new proposals. A stream that feeds Piney Run Lake - a proposed drinking water supply - runs across the property. The property includes wetlands.

"Under the old ordinance, the developer could maybe get 20 lots off this parcel, but under the new one, he can divide the total ground by three and get 36 lots," said Bruce Waldron, Carroll's development review coordinator.

But it would be wrong for developers to think the law will remain in its current form, said Kienitz, the planning secretary. "I think it's clearly still under debate, and it would be unwise for anyone to assume the outcome," he said.

Kienitz has said, however, that the state's ultimatum regarding the preservation money will only kick in if the planning commission approves a plan under the law in its current form - and the length of the approval process makes such a scenario unlikely.

Some of the proposed amendments to the law could reduce the potential lot yield for developers. Dell and Gouge have expressed general support changing the law, with Frazier the lone proponent of keeping it as is.

The law also faces opposition from residents, some of whom fear developers who have applied to the county will insist on a grandfather clause that will allow them to proceed with their plans under the law's original provisions.

"The commissioners should put on a moratorium and should not accept any applications under this ordinance until it is revised," said Jeannie Nichols, a Sykesville councilwoman.

"The problem is that many of these projects will get further along into the process and will be more and more likely to be grandfathered. Then, it will be up to the county's legal department to decide," Nichols said.

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