Development rights bill not a cure-all, some say

Council may amend growth-control measure

April 13, 2003|By Lane Harvey Brown | Lane Harvey Brown,SUN STAFF

As the deadline for amending a bill on transferring development rights nears, community groups and county officials say the bill is only the first step toward resolving how to best steer growth in agricultural areas.

In its amended form, the bill, which originally sought to abolish the use of transferred development rights (TDRs), is more likely to put tighter controls on their use. But the county administration, developers and activists say the TDR problem won't be resolved until a comprehensive program controlling their use is established.

A law written in the 1980s allows agricultural land owners to transfer building rights to a property that is contiguous or within 500 feet as a means to make money from their land without developing it.

But the loosely worded law has allowed developers to "hopscotch" rights across distances of more than a mile to pool rights and create subdivisions amid active farms.

Lance C. Miller, a Republican council member representing the rural northern county, said he has received a "boatload" of letters, e-mails and phone calls on his emergency bill, which is scheduled to be amended at Tuesday's County Council meeting.

He said he is encouraged by the response. "I think it's been very good, especially in the past two weeks," Miller said. Emotions have settled, he said, and people are giving their views.

While community groups have put forward a range of ideas, from leaving the program alone to limiting it severely, the amendment likely to be introduced this week is still being discussed among county officials, Miller said. But one point of agreement is that the law should allow only a one-time transfer within a half-mile radius, Miller said.

He said other points beings discussed are placing conservation easements on the land where transfers are sold, so landowners could not try to request new development rights on the same land later; and setting a threshold for density on the land that receives the development rights, so that homes could be clustered in higher density than agricultural zoning's one house per 10 acres, but not so high that it, in effect, changes the zoning.

A key concern raised by some community groups about TDRs is that they can be collected in such large numbers on a single property under the current law that they amount to "backdoor rezoning."

The proposed single-transfer limit is reaction rather than substantive change, said Joseph Snee, a Bel Air lawyer who works regularly on land transactions in the county. "The half-mile just strikes me as arbitrary," he said. "I think it reacts to an issue that is a nonissue and purports to make a change - but it only substitutes 500 feet with a half-mile."

He said the entire argument over TDRs is fostered by a small group of people who don't like growth in the northern end of the county and yet also are against expanding the designated growth area or updating the county's land use plan.

"They really haven't thought it through," he said. "All they do is put pressure on the north end."

Also under consideration is whether to appoint a task force or commission to review the TDR law and create a formal TDR program that designates areas that will transfer rights, and areas that will receive them for future growth.

"We need to get together and look at the whole TDR issue," said John O'Neill, county administration director. But, he noted, in the past year the county has formed a commission on school construction and another to study the adequate-facilities law.

"We don't need another commission," he said, adding that the administration of County Executive James M. Harkins favors grass-roots work groups.

"I think that would be more productive," O'Neill said.

Judy Blomquist, president of Friends of Harford, a grass-roots group that monitors planning issues, said the County Council could start the drive for a program, or the Department of Planning and Zoning or community groups could band together and propose a program to the council.

Blomquist said she didn't expect to see the planning department take the lead. "I don't see any movement on it in Planning and Zoning," she said. "It's obvious that it's not in their directive from the administration."

Snee, however, said that with the county in the early stages of land use and zoning review, now is an ideal time to consider a full TDR program. "I'd put it all together in a nice package in the next two years," he said.

The run-up to Tuesday's meeting hasn't sat well in some parts of the farming community, said David Thompson, owner of Foxborough Nurseries in Street. He and other local farmers whose land has been placed in conservation easements banded together this year before the bill was introduced to raise their concerns about TDRs.

"I'm very disappointed in the government process," Thompson said, noting how council President Robert S. Wagner closed the public hearing abruptly this month when the discussion between members Miller and Robert G. Cassilly became heated.

"They said at the beginning we would hear from people first, then the council would discuss it," Thompson said. "It's like they want to keep it secret. But they're elected officials. They represent us.

"It's a tough issue," Thompson said of the land-use controversy. "Once this natural resource is gone, you can't get it back."

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