Harford farmers boxed in by well-intended law

Development creeps into once-rural farmland

March 09, 2003|By Lane Harvey Brown | Lane Harvey Brown,SUN STAFF

Forest Hill dairy farmer Herbie Harkins well understands why some farmers are upset about hopscotching development rights across Harford County's rural northern tier.

Those farmers don't want to end up like him, Harkins says.

The 50-year-old Harford native used to be one of a handful of residents along Chestnut Hill Road's rolling hills, at the northern edge of the county's so-called development envelope. But today, a crop of new neighbors, in dream homes starting at $400,000, has closed in on many of the fields around his 178-acre farm.

Part of the reason these homes can concentrate in agriculturally zoned areas, where one home is allowed per 10 acres, is the transferred development rights, which can be sold by one farmer to a nearby farm. The practice allows a higher density of homes to be clustered on one farm, while the other remains unchanged.

Proponents say transferring development rights allows farmers to realize revenue from the land, often their most valuable possession. Critics say the program, while allowed by county law, has been abused in recent years, threatening the farming industry.

Since County Councilman Lance C. Miller, a Republican who represents the northern part of the county, introduced emergency legislation last week to abolish the program, both sides have been buzzing about the program and how to rescue it in the next 45 days, the window for emergency legislation to be acted upon.

Miller introduced the bill to a standing-room-only crowd made up largely of farmers, including Sam Fielder, a veteran of the military, who stood up at the end of the meeting and said, "It's hell to go halfway around the world to fight for someone else's land ... and be legislated out of your rights."

Many more farmers have been calling Miller ever since.

"It's been a tough week for me," he told a group of farmers who met Thursday night in Highland to discuss the transferred development rights (TDR) program.

Harkins said that while he understands and respects the farmers who criticize the program, he also respects the rights of landowners to use their land as they see fit. If someone wants to sell development rights, he said, "that's really their choice to make. It's not really fair to have your neighbor dictate that you can't do that."

Several neighbors around him have sold rights, helping those large homes crop up along the rolling hillsides. It's hard to watch the landscape change, Harkins said. Yet that change helped spur him to sell eight rights several years ago to pay for needed upgrades to his 360-head dairy operation.

"I'm stuck in the middle," he said ruefully. That's figuratively and literally, as the eight homes go up in the field across from his house.

William Amoss, agricultural land preservation administrator for the county, said many farmers "are scared once [the TDR program] is taken away, it might not be put back."

County Executive James M. Harkins, descendant of a long line of Harford farmers (and a distant cousin of Herbie Harkins), has expressed concern about the TDR program, said John O'Neill, county administrator, speaking for the executive, who is on vacation.

"It's an issue that needs addressing," O'Neill said, though he added he was not sure Miller's legislation alone is the answer.

Outside the agricultural community, some of the same concerns are echoed by developers, including Frank Hertsch, president of Morris and Ritchie Associates, one of the county's largest planning, architecture and site-work companies.

Clustering TDRs and building subdivisions, while preserving other farmland, makes more sense than "chewing up farmland like crazy" on homes scattered across 10-acre lots, Hertsch said.

He said he doesn't believe it is fair to ask people in the development envelope to pay for the transfer of development rights into populated areas - which often lack adequate schools and recreation space - solely to preserve agriculture.

The TDR originated in the 1980s 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.

Hertsch defended the current TDR structure, saying, "The program's a good program. The 500-foot rule needs to be 5,000 or 10,000 feet, or some larger number, to create residential subdivisions in concentrated areas."

Those are the kinds of communities closing in around Harkins, who said the neighbors often don't think too highly of his work. The smells and the noise of the farm are unwelcome to folks in the big houses on the hills - even though, as Harkins pointed out, they wouldn't be there if it weren't for farmers.

He would like to get out, buy a farm farther north and turn his land in Forest Hill over to the burgeoning growth. He's had several visits from real estate agents, proffering contracts worth millions of dollars for his land. But, he said, they are full of rezoning contingencies and other requirements that keep him from signing. Besides, he said, the going rate is getting higher every month.

But he's not considering these changes happily.

"It's very hard," he said, noting that, almost a century ago, his parents and grandparents put together the farm he now lives on. "Something that comes down from ancestors is hard to part with."

Meanwhile, Miller stands by his bill, despite the fiery criticism he has received from angry farmers. "They don't want their rights taken away, and I am in agreement with them," he said.

Miller said that while his tactic might not have been the smoothest, it was necessary. If he had tried to get folks together to talk about TDRs, he said, "everybody would have yawned at me."

A public hearing is scheduled for 6:15 p.m. April 1 in the County Council chamber in Bel Air. Information: 410-879- 2000.

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