Proposal targets homes on farmland

Zoning plan seeks to cut `family conveyance'

Anne Arundel

March 10, 2004|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

As part of a sweeping proposal to revise the Anne Arundel zoning code, the county planning department wants to eliminate a provision that allows farmers to build houses on their land for family members.

Planners say the provision has been used as a back-door way to subdivide land intended for agricultural use.

"It's been so abused that we decided to eliminate it entirely" in the department's recommendations, said Joe Rutter, the county's planning and zoning officer.

But County Executive Janet S. Owens is taking a more moderate position for now.

"I share the concerns about the history of abuse under family conveyance," said Owens, who grew up on a farm. "However, I want to maintain the ability of a farmer to deed part of his or her farm to the children, so that the farm can continue to prosper."

The county's rural area zoning classification says farmland should hold one house per 20 acres. But the "family conveyance" provision allows property owners to add houses for family members up to a density of one house per 2 acres. Rutter said one 160-acre farm in the southern part of the county has 34 family homes on it.

Despite such examples, the recommended revision is a smack at personal property rights, said Susan Stroud Parker, co-director of government affairs for the Home Builders Association of Maryland.

"We recognize that there's been some artful manipulating of that law, but that doesn't mean it should be done away with altogether," Parker said.

The elimination of the "family conveyance" provision is one of hundreds of changes recommended in the revamped zoning code released by the planning department Monday. Developers, builders and land-use attorneys said they were still digesting the nearly 200 pages of revised code yesterday.

`More user-friendly'

Rutter said he will formally present the proposed revisions to the County Council in May and expects the council to begin discussing the changes in June.

"The one main thrust is that we want it to be more user-friendly," he said of the code, which hasn't been fully revised since 1971. "The current document can be so unfriendly, referring you from one section to another and presenting so many inconsistencies."

Developers applauded the effort to streamline zoning laws.

"We're certainly pleased to see the document made more user-friendly," Parker said.

But some changes will stir controversy, she and Rutter agreed.

Another proposed change would reduce the number of lots developers could squeeze from environmentally sensitive parcels around the county.

Under the current code, developers calculate how many lots they can subdivide based on the total acreage of a parcel. But under the proposed revision, developers would have to subtract acres consisting of wetlands, steep slopes or flood plain before calculating the number of lots that could be subdivided.

It's unclear how many lots developers might lose to such a change, but the proposed revision could affect projects that are well into the county review process. Builders argue that such projects should be grandfathered in, meaning they would move forward under the old zoning regulations.

"I think someone who's well down the road, who has hundreds of thousands of dollars invested, shouldn't be hurt by this," said Mike DeStefano, president of Sturbridge Homes, one of the largest builders in the county. "It's just not right."

DeStefano also said the county should be careful not to create laws that would make high-density development difficult.

"I do worry that this might eliminate some lots out there that we're going to need," he said.

DeStefano, like most developers and builders contacted yesterday, had not reviewed the proposed changes in detail. He said he would read the 192-page document this weekend and predicted that the building community's response to the proposed changes would become clearer in a few weeks.

Parker said she was just getting around to distributing the proposal to her network of builders. "The devil is in the details," she said. "So we're going to go through this with a fine-toothed comb to see if there are any significant changes."

Other proposals

Other proposed revisions to the code include: adding flexibility to permitted land uses in industrial zones; eliminating special exceptions in a number of zoning classifications; condensing zoning rules that apply to business parks; and creating special exceptions for assisted living and conference centers.

Anyone interested in reviewing the changes can read them online at www.aacounty.org/PlanZone/index.cfm or examine a copy on the fourth floor of the county planning offices at 2664 Riva Road in Annapolis.

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