1980s land law being criticized for its loopholes

Transfer of building rights allowed under legislation

`Got to move on this quick'

Intent was to help farmers to keep land, gain revenue

Harford County

February 23, 2003|By Lane Harvey Brown | Lane Harvey Brown,SUN STAFF

Far beyond the edges of Harford County's designated growth areas, developers are quietly moving in on agricultural areas in the northern tier and developing residential communities next to farms committed to conservation, further straining a struggling agricultural community, say some farmers and officials.

The key to developers' success is capitalizing on a loosely worded county law allowing the transfer of development rights from one property to another - legislation written in the 1980s to help farmers keep their land while leveraging revenue from it.

Today, that law allows developers to hopscotch these rights from other areas, sometimes across land parcels too small to accommodate the development rights, and land them on properties abutting farms with conservation easements - a selling point for the developer but a potential nightmare for farmers who can become boxed in by houses and traffic as they try to keep their farms viable.

Farmers, preservationists and at least one County Council member call these hopscotched transfers a sizable misinterpretation of the spirit of the law. Lance C. Miller, who represents the northern tier, said last week that he plans to introduce emergency legislation at the council's meeting March 4 that will halt the transfer of development rights (TDR) program until the county can retool it.

"We have some specific critical situations right now," Miller said. "We've got to move on this quick."

Glenville farmer Lawrason Sayre said the influx of homes brings traffic on unimproved country roads and complaints about the necessary work of farming: running equipment at night or in the wee hours of the morning; animal sounds and smells; fertilizers, pesticides and other treatments.

"That's the threat to all of us now who have committed to the ag preservation program," he said. "With this encroachment, it makes it harder and harder to farm."

In Harford's agricultural-zoned areas, property owners have one development right per 10 acres, so if an owner has a 100-acre farm, he or she could build up to 10 houses on the property, planning officials say.

The TDR plan originated to help farmers who needed money but didn't want to build on their active farmland to sell development rights to a farm within 500 feet of the property.

Today, the going rate for development rights is anywhere from $40,000 to $60,000 apiece, more in some areas, said Moe Davenport, the Planning and Zoning Department's administrator for development review.

Developers are moving rights through several properties, which all are within 500 feet of each other - but the property where the rights originated and their destination may be a mile or farther apart, according to land records.

Some of these property owners who provide the pass-through privilege are also receiving thousands of dollars in return, farmers and some officials say.

"That was never the intent of the legislation," said Carol Deibel, a former Harford County planner who helped write the code.

Transfers of development rights were once rarely used, Davenport said. The department used to see about half a dozen cases using TDRs in a year; in the past two or three years, they've increased significantly, he said, though he declined to give specific numbers.

Development pressures and "out-of-the-roof" lot values have contributed to the increase, he said - as well as the fact that the county's law on TDRs is open-ended, so rights can be transferred anywhere in the county.

Many counties in Maryland, notably Montgomery and Howard, use TDRs as a growth-management tool. The idea is to pool development in concentrated areas rather than letting it sprawl across a county unchecked.

But those counties' programs have a key strength that Harford's lacks, Miller said: They designate areas where rights are sent from, and areas that may receive them. "We are one of the last counties not to have a strong TDR program," he said.

Dudley Campbell of the local engineering firm Campbell and Nolan Associates, a property owner who has used TDRs in a development project in the northern end of the county, said sending and receiving areas are needed so the county "can control the growth and send [TDRs] to places where growth can be accommodated."

When the planning department and community advisers worked together to create a TDR program in the early 1980s, the intent was for the county to refine the program to include sending and receiving areas, said Sayre, who served as a member of the planning advisory board then.

Deibel, who is director of planning and community development in Bel Air, said that when the legislation was drafted, "politically, at the time, it was not acceptable to develop sending and receiving areas."

That hasn't changed some 20 years later, say county planning officials.

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