A piece of mail and a hard-to-miss billboard on Route 140 are causing a ruckus in and outside Carroll County's government offices.
The billboard in Finksburg, near Route 91, says: "Warning! You have entered a Constitution-Free Zone. No Property Rights Allowed."
The postcards, which were sent to Carroll residents early last week, state that "farms [are] to be regulated into agricultural preservation without compensation." County officials deny that accusation and say misinterpreted information is being disseminated.
The person at the center of the dispute is Westminster resident Brian Chapline, 39, a Realtor who in recent weeks has launched a campaign to educate residents on what he says are county efforts to take away property rights.
He has started a Web site (www.carrollcountylandowners. net), spent his own money to put up the billboard last week and mailed postcards protesting proposed growth-related ordinances. He declined to say how much he paid for the billboard and how many postcards he mailed.
"People need to be informed on what the implications are," Chapline said. "The mission is not to stop [the county commissioners] or fault them, but to inform people that their rights are in jeopardy."
After the postcards were mailed, the county's planning department, county attorney and the agricultural land preservation offices were inundated with calls from concerned farmers.
During Wednesday's public hearing on a proposal to create an employment campus zone, Commissioner Julia W. Gouge and Steven C. Horn, the county planning director, said the postcards were circulating incorrect information on the agricultural land preservation program.
"The county has a rich history of agricultural preservation." Horn said. "The thing we are proud of is that it's a volunteer program. To intimate that Carroll County, through adoption of ordinance or regulation, would force land into preservation is a misunderstanding of facts."
The county is in the midst of revamping a series of growth-related proposals during a yearlong freeze on residential development. The commissioners imposed the freeze in June to give the planning department time to find ways to better manage county growth.
Chapline's contentions about the agriculture preservation come from a change in the language for rural development guidelines. In effect since 1972, the county wants to codify the existing rural development policy and include it in the revised ordinance on development and subdivision standards.
Under the current guidelines, proposed residential building sites to be built in rural areas "should, whenever possible," be located in wooded or pasture land instead of productive cropland. The proposal under consideration would change "should, whenever possible," to "shall."
That, Chapline contends, makes it impossible for farmers to build on productive cropland. Furthermore, since one of the criteria to qualify for easements is that the land be productive cropland, a farmer's property would be preserved through regulation and without compensation, he asserts.
"I'm reading their proposal, the current one, and the implications are very clear," he said. "Maybe that's not what they meant it to say. ... They removed the word `should' and put the word `shall' and according to the dictionary, the meaning of shall is clear."
But county officials disagree, saying they are not trying to take away any property rights. The rural development guidelines, they say, will be applied in the same manner as always.
The county's economic development office sent out letters last week clarifying the issue.
"There was a misrepresentation and misinterpretation of the intent of the newer standards," said Ralph Robertson, a county agricultural land preservation specialist. "They're not new standards. They've just been streamlined a little bit."
But Chapline printed the wrong public hearing date on the postcard. The hearing on changes to the county's ordinance on development standards is scheduled for March 16, not tomorrow. He said he was planning to mail out a second set of cards correcting the error.
Chapline said he felt compelled to act. Although the freeze halted his small development project, he said he decided not to pursue a legal challenge.
Then, he said, the county's recent discussions over how to deal with all-terrain vehicles in residential areas pushed him into action.
The billboard says it all.
Bold red lines strike through pictures of an all-terrain vehicle, a house under construction and a portable basketball hoop. (Taneytown and Sykesville recently banned basketball hoops and other sports equipment from municipal streets.)
"I want people in the county to know what rights are being scraped away," Chapline said.
But Commissioner Dean L. Minnich took the billboard in stride. "Isn't it great to live in a country where you could say anything?" he said.
"This is more political rhetoric," the commissioner said. "You could take any premise of land and property rights, you could run back and forth on that continuum, you could take it all the way to the right and all the way to the left. There is an element of truth in all."