When the simple life and suburbia collide

Development: As housing springs up farther from cities, rural routines such as hunting are falling under scrutiny.

January 04, 2004|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,SUN STAFF

BOONSBORO - Joseph Michael has held invitation-only pheasant hunts on his family farm here for nearly five years. He has casually hunted other birds on the land for as long as he can remember.

But high-priced McMansions have sprouted on the farm next door - when all are built, there will be 65 homes with sticker prices of more than $500,000. They bring concerns about bullets being fired so close to those new floor-to-ceiling windows.

Situations like this have left officials struggling with questions of whether their rural way of life will have to be curtailed to make room for the suburban living that is coming their way, whether in this case it is too dangerous to allow hunting so close to where more and more outsiders plan to lay their heads.

"This ain't the western frontier anymore," said George Anikis, a member of the Washington County Planning Commission. "Suburbia is arriving more rapidly than you know."

Tomorrow, the planning commission will discuss whether to allow Michael to continue his hobby and entertain his many guests. Some say this issue should be easy enough to settle. But they agree it's a harbinger of more conflicts to come.

"This is bound to happen more often as we become more populated and have more people around," said Jill Baker, a county planner. "Every so often you get something like this where the uses tend to be incompatible."

Development here - about 65 miles west of Baltimore and 65 miles northwest of Washington - is beginning to boom, bringing big-city folks with big-city desires. There is more shopping to be found close by. There's even talk that a Starbucks could be coming to the county.

Much of the county wasn't designed for a large influx of newcomers. Many of the roads are two lanes, and lumbering farm combines can seriously slow a commuter on the way out to the highway. There is no county garbage pickup - people hire private trash collectors or haul their bags to the dump - and there are no plans to put it in place.

This is still a rural community. Just ask the county commissioners, who just a few months ago made it clear that's where their loyalties lie when they passed a "right-to-farm" ordinance.

It basically lets new homeowners know that if farmers are conducting their work safely and using proper practices they can't be considered a nuisance. No complaints about the smell of manure allowed. No complaints about the noisy farm equipment at the crack of dawn. Any disputes are to be handled by a community arbitration board.

"It will make everyone's job a lot easier," predicts County Commissioner James F. Kercheval.

Hunting tradition

The Michael family farm is getting the attention right now.

For years, Michael, an attorney who works for Washington County, has held private hunts on his property. About 10 times a year big groups come to shoot the pheasant, partridge and quail he stocks the place with. Since March 1999, he has held a state permit designating much of his 137 acres a noncommercial regulated shooting area, a permit he renews each year for $150, said Mary Goldie, permits coordinator for the state Department of Natural Resources' Wildlife and Heritage Service.

The permit allows Michael to bring in birds to be hunted, allows him to hunt on Sunday and allows his guests to shoot many birds each visit as opposed to just one, he said. He would not need a special permit to do his own hunting on his land, something he says he tries to do a little each day.

When the residential development next door - Meadows Green - was being approved, Michael said he was surprised to see his shooting area wasn't marked on maps. The planning department told him that he should probably put together a site plan and get certification, he said.

"I believe I am in compliance, and I believe this step is an extra step," he said.

`Only concern is safety'

Nevertheless, the planning commission wasn't comfortable approving the plan without seeing the logistics, so they toured the place last week.

"I don't want to see somebody get hurt there," said Anikis, the planning commissioner, after the visit. "My concern is the proximity to those houses. My only concern is safety."

State law prohibits shooting within 150 yards of an occupied dwelling, regardless of permit. Signs around the perimeter of the Michael property caution that it is a shooting area, but James Proakis, senior vice president of the Rockville-based D.R. Horton Inc., which is developing Meadows Green, said he "didn't even know the guy was there."

He said he is "concerned about the bird hunting" but is certain the planning commission will take the necessary steps to ensure safety.

"If the county is approving residences to go in ... the county does have the power and authority to make sure everyone's safe whether they're driving down the road or living next door," Proakis said. "You just don't allow hunting where you allow residential development."

But the right to hunt, many in these parts say, is akin to that right to farm.

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