Council duo aims to find master plan compromise

Cassilly, Miller seek to aid farmers, but limit sprawl

April 25, 2004|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

Two Republican County Council members who don't normally see eye-to-eye have teamed up in an attempt to modify Harford's proposed master plan to address the problem of urban sprawl while protecting the financial interests of farmers and landowners.

The legislative duo of Lance C. Miller and Robert G. Cassilly is also huddling with top officials of County Executive James M. Harkins' administration in hopes of reaching a consensus on the plan, which will set the guidelines for growth and development in the county for the next six years. Miller represents the agricultural northern portion of the county. Cassilly represents Bel Air.

The administration withdrew its proposed master plan from consideration by the council earlier this month when it was greeted with more than 70 amendments, but hopes to submit a revised plan by June 15.

"We want to work with the administration and work out our differences so that when the plan comes back we won't have to add a lot of amendments," Cassilly said.

Miller said his work with Cassilly is "very preliminary."

Cassilly summed up the relationship this year: "Sure, we have butted heads frequently in the past, but I have a great respect or his opinions and insight. We will be looking for areas of compromise. We will work toward a middle ground and we don't know where the middle ground is at this point."

Their discussions will mainly be centered around three agriculture-related issues:

Farm family conveyances.

Clustering of residential development.

Creation of agriculture resource districts.

Cassilly noted that there are only a half-dozen farms in his district. "But I grew up on a farm," he said. "I recognized the importance of agriculture. It's a major part of our heritage and it benefits everyone in the county. The open space adds to the beauty of the county and agriculture is still a big and viable industry in this county. We need to protect it."

Cassilly said that the development of homes in farm districts adds to the county's tax burden because of the cost of expanded services.

But he also noted that it is more expensive to deliver services to rural districts. "In five minutes, the county can plow in front of 30 homes in a residential district," he said. "In the agriculture district, you can plow for five minutes and pass one home."

Miller said he is adamantly opposed to the administration's "sunset" proposal to end farm family conveyances in three years. He expressed his objections during a recent meeting with J. Steven Kaii-Ziegler, the county's director of planning and zoning.

Since 1977, farmers have been allowed to parcel out one lot for each of their children without losing any development rights attached to the property.

Kaii-Ziegler said that Harford is doing the same as other counties in seeking to end its family conveyance program.

He has said in the past that such provisions are usually limited to five or 10 years. Under the administration's proposal, the conveyances would have been in place for 30 years.

Cassilly said he will be meeting Kaii-Zeigler and County Attorney Robert S. McCord this week to iron out their differences on the plan.

"My counterproposal is to have farmers register their family conveyances on a list that would never expire," he said, which would save farmers the thousands of dollars they would have to pay for survey and engineering services to record their lots with the county.

"I can understand the administration's need to know how many family conveyances are out there for planning purposes," Cassilly said. "They need to know how many development rights are out there as they plan for roads, schools and parks.

"I think the fair compromise is to have farmers register their lots," he said. "It gives the county the information they need, but there is no cost to the farmers."

Miller said earlier that if the county put farmers in a position where they stand to lose their family conveyances and the equity in their land, there would be an explosion of development of single-family homes in the county's farm regions.

The farmers' family conveyances are in addition to their development rights. A farmer has one development right for each 10 acres of land owned.

Instead of breaking up a 100-acre farm into 10 development lots, the administration has proposed that farmers cluster development on a small portion of their property.

Clustering - putting five homes on 2-acre lots at the corner of a farm - "would preserve farmland and reduce the cost of sprawl," Cassilly said. "The problem is, there is no incentive for farmers to cluster."

He said that a farmer seeking to develop property would likely get more money selling a 10-acre home lot than a 2-acre lot.

Cassilly's proposed compromise would have farmers limit development to a small section of their property and then be allowed to sell their remaining development rights. He proposes that farmers sell their rights to a developer building homes in areas zoned rural residential, or RR, which limits one home to each 2 acres.

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