Farmers fear loss of land equity

Provision of master plan cuts family conveyances

Officials want to direct growth

Endangered retirement could force owners to sell

March 14, 2004|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

Harford farmers fear they could lose up to half the equity in their property - money they count on for their retirement - as the county moves forward to implement a new master plan designed to direct growth over the next six years.

Councilman Lance C. Miller said a provision of the land-use plan that would end farm family conveyances in three years and a bid to down-zone farmland to allow one building right or house for each 20 acres of land, threatens the economic viability of the farming industry. Miller, a Republican, represents the northern part of the county, where most of the farms are located.

Such moves, he said, would also drastically change the rural landscape and heritage of the county, which the master plan seeks to preserve.

"Farmers don't want development," Miller said. "But put them in a position where they stand to lose their family conveyances and the equity in their land and you will see such an explosion of single-family homes that it will make your head spin."

Miller's comments came after a three-hour council hearing Tuesday night at Harford Technical High School in Churchville, during which the public was afforded another chance to comment on the 240-page master plan.

During the session, citizens also expressed concern about the potential expansion of the county development envelope, or designated growth area, through the establishment of mixed-use regions off Interstate 95. They opposed the extension of public utilities outside the designated growth area.

Councilman Robert G. Cassilly, a Republican representing Bel Air, said he favors limited commercial development along the I-95 interchanges, to collect revenues from out-of-state travelers stopping for meals or gasoline.

But he is opposed to the size of the proposed "mixed-office" zoning at I-95 and Route 543. The new zoning category would allow a mixture of offices and residential development.

"But there are a lot of positive things in the plan," Cassilly said. He listed moves to protect the county's water supply, and updates of the land preservation and recreation plans.

"There's a lot of good stuff in the plan," Cassilly said. "What we do with it is going to be the challenge. The public should hold our feet to the fire" to implement the favorable parts of the plan.

For farmers, the most alarming part of the plan is the proposed phasing out in 2007 of the conveyances of lots in rural areas to family members. Since 1977, farmers have been allowed to parcel out one lot for each of their children without losing any development rights attached to their property. "On top of that," Miller said, "some people want to change the zoning laws to allow for one house for every 20 acres of land owned by a farmer from one house for every 10 acres now.

"That would take away half the equity in all farms," Miller said.

"Don't call the farmers' bluff," Miller said. "I know these people, and if you call their bluff - if you put them in the position of losing their equity - they will step out of farming into development."

Miller said he would offer an amendment to eliminate the language in the master plan that seeks to take away the family conveyances.

Miller said he also would strongly oppose any move to change the zoning laws from one building right per 10 acres.

"There will be no 1 for 20," he said. "That will not happen. If it does, it will be over my dead body."

Nancy Jones, who owns a farm with her husband, Wilson, in Pylesville, said she was elated to hear Miller's defense of farmers at the council meeting.

"It's not fair," she said at the end of the long public hearing. "We could lose half the equity in our land. This is our retirement, our 401(k) plan."

J. Steven Kaii-Ziegler, director of the Department of Planning and Zoning, said Harford is not alone in seeking to eliminate the provision for farm family conveyances. He said other counties in the state are moving in the same direction.

He said such provisions are often inserted into a code for a limited amount of time, usually five to 10 years.

By the time they are phased out, he said the provision in Harford County would have been in place for 30 years. "That's plenty of time for farmers to use them," he said.

Kaii-Zeigler said there is also some concern that the conveyances were not being used according to the intent of the code. "Sometimes a lot would be created for a family member but then very quickly transferred to someone not in the family."

About 150 people attended the council's hearing on the master plan. About 30 people addressed the council and about a third of them were farmers.

Most of them voiced their opposition to a change in the family conveyance plan and against the zoning change.

They expressed support for two other provisions favored by Miller to protect the county's farming district: an effort to broaden the rules on the transfer of farm development rights and an effort to establish buffers to protect farms from adjacent development.

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