`Rural legacy' in danger

On The Bay

Zoning: Wicomico County's proposed changes will all but ensure the development of farmland.

March 15, 2002|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

AN OPEN LETTER to the residents of Salisbury and surrounding Wicomico County:

I write this not as a lecture, but an appeal, less in anger than sadness, as one whose job allows living anywhere a computer plugs in, but who chooses to stay on the lower Eastern Shore, where I was born.

In a nutshell, your county officials are on the verge of gutting already weak zoning that would remove any semblance of protection for rural and agricultural land.

It will make a mockery of the county's comprehensive land-use plan, which calls for conserving "the rural legacy that is Wicomico County's special offering to its residents."

It will one-up Carroll County's recent, well-publicized attempt to weaken its agricultural zoning - a move so blatantly against the public interest that the state made the county back down by threatening to cut all of its farm preservation money.

It will ensure that the nearly 40 percent of Wicomico that is farmland will be effectively zoned for 3-acre home lots - a developer's dream.

This fiasco has been pushed by the county's farmers in the mistaken notion that farming's survival here depends on maximizing their ability to sell to developers.

Remarkably, the county's business community has fought the looming sellout of the countryside, concerned about losing the vital poultry industry, plus the added taxes that sprawl development brings.

The county's weak environmental community has joined them, but most of the public has been apathetic. It seems likely that politicians will give farmers and developers what they want.

This is not a crisis in the making. It is a crisis already upon us. This will be the final nail in the coffin.

Since 1950, as population has grown from about 35,000 toward 110,000 projected by the end of this decade, Wicomico has shifted from about 50-50 urban vs. rural residents to nearly 70 percent now living outside Salisbury and the county's small towns.

A whopping 83 percent of all the land for residential growth in recent decades has come from forest and farms, despite county plans designating a generous "metro core" around Salisbury to accommodate most growth.

This 36,000-acre "core" - 15 percent of the county - has more than twice the land needed to handle everyone projected to move here through 2020, by county estimates.

The main reason we have continued gobbling up rural lands instead has been bad zoning. And now, when the trend in most places - including other Shore counties - is to strengthen protection of rural land, Wicomico is poised to weaken what is already among Maryland's shoddiest zoning.

On its surface, the proposal looks reasonable, allowing development on farmland of one lot per 15 acres. But that is a sham.

It lets anyone choose instead to "cluster" development on a farm, which results in a lot for every 3 acres. Only a fool would not develop under that option.

But it gets much worse. The proposal would let owners of undevelopable rural acreage - wetlands, steep slopes, poorly drained soils - sell 3-acre lot development rights to any other rural parcel, to increase the number of buildable lots.

This is similar to what brought the state down on Carroll, but broader in scope. The Wicomico planning commission has tentatively modified this provision, but is under intense pressure to back off.

An analysis by the Maryland Department of Planning estimates that the above provisions, and others that weaken zoning even further, would mean 10,000 extra homes built on rural lands - a very conservative analysis.

I believe farmers here want to preserve farming. They look at the low prices their crops bring, and at mounting environmental restrictions and worry, rightly, about needing flexibility to sell off lots to stay afloat or to retire.

They worry that nonfarmers are more interested in preserving farmland than farmers, and there's some truth to that.

But they needn't turn the county's rural heritage into suburbia. They should look at what fellow farmers have supported in almost all surrounding Shore counties.

In Dorchester, the ag zone is three to four times as protective; in Caroline and Talbot, seven times as protective; in Worcester and Kent, eight to 10 times.

The bottom line: This zoning won't preserve farming or a rural landscape. You almost couldn't devise a way to bust it up faster.

But this is what we'll soon be stuck with, unless people protest to their County Council representatives right now.

And if the county can't come to its senses, then the state should reconsider its farmland protection programs here - no sense wasting taxpayers' money to preserve fragments of a sinking ship.

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