Revisions to zoning law pass muster

Measure passed in fall raised concerns about surge in development

March 19, 2002|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

The tumult surrounding a Carroll zoning ordinance passed in September has mostly died out, with county residents and state planning officials expressing satisfaction during a hearing last night at proposed amendments to the law they once reviled.

"Quibbling over details aside, I think we're at a meeting of the minds here on the larger issue," said state Secretary of Planning Roy W. Kienitz, who a few months ago described the original law as one of the worst blows ever to Maryland's land preservation efforts.

The law's wording - soon to be changed - created the potential for more development by altering the method for calculating the number of residential lots permissible on land zoned for conservation. The wording also allowed landowners to transfer the rights for those lots to land zoned for agricultural use.

After researching the ordinance's potential effects, Kienitz threatened to decertify Carroll's vaunted farmland preservation program if the law wasn't revised or repealed. State planners claimed it could prompt development of 4,300 additional homes on Carroll's rural land.

Many Carroll residents also expressed outrage over the law.

Under the revisions discussed last night, the method for calculating the number of residential lots available on conservation land would revert to its pre-September form. Landowners would be permitted only as many lots as they could demonstrably carve from conservation land in plots of 3 acres or more.

The law would still allow landowners to cluster their available lots at a minimum size of 1 acre each and spread those clusters across zoning lines, affording developers extra flexibility to put subdivisions on the best plots possible.

"We're pretty confident that with the amendments, the law does what it was supposed to all along, which is allow transfers of development rights across zoning lines under certain circumstances," Kienitz said.

The state planning department raised a few minor concerns about language in the proposed amendments, and Kienitz said he won't formally remove the threat of decertifying the farmland preservation program until the amended law is passed.

All three county commissioners have said they're satisfied with the amended law, although each has a few concerns.

"The amendments are a compromise that I think is reasonable," said Commissioner Robin Bartlett Frazier, an outspoken defender of the original law. "It's watered down a little, but I think the compromise is a good choice."

Commissioner Donald I. Dell called the process of amending the law a "learning experience that was good for everyone."

County residents, who unleashed hours of criticism at a hearing on the law in December, presented more subdued statements last night. Although about 35 people attended the hearing, only a few spoke.

Confusion has replaced anger, with many residents posing specific questions about the proposed amendments, which have undergone several revisions during the past two months.

Some residents suggested that the commissioners repeal the law, because the amendments will eliminate its major impacts.

"I am asking you to repeal ordinance 01-11, rather than try to falsely justify it by amending it, as you are now considering," said Finksburg community activist and commissioner candidate Neil Ridgely. "Ordinance 01-11 is like a bad toothache that has nagged at the county for more than six months. The tooth cannot be repaired. It needs to be yanked out. There may have been some good intentions in the drafting of this law, but clearly at this point we know that the negatives far outweigh any gains."

Others expressed frustration at having endured a six-month revision process for a law they feel never should have been passed.

The commissioners can vote on the amended law as soon as March 28.

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