Anne Arundel weighs changes to land-use policy on farms

Allowance for family homes has been abused, critics say

October 17, 2004|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

Joannie Coleman-Casey's 13-year-old son likes to tell friends that one day he will build a castle in the back yard of the family farm in Gambrills. He has heard that he will get a piece of the small property when he is old enough.

But Coleman-Casey worries she will not be able to keep that promise.

Anne Arundel County land-use officials want to eliminate a county law that allows owners of farmland to give parcels to family members so those family members can build homes without following the county's normal zoning rules.

Planning Director Joseph W. Rutter Jr. says too many rural landowners have used that provision to create suburban-style clusters of homes on land never intended for development.

Dozens of small farm owners such as Coleman-Casey disagree. They appeared at a County Council hearing Wednesday night to say the rule change would make it impossible for them to maintain their family farm legacies.

"I will have no opportunity to give a lot to my son," Coleman-Casey said.

Already, such arguments have won sympathy from several council members and County Executive Janet S. Owens.

Councilman Edward R. Reilly, a Republican who represents the rural southern portion of the county, said he wants to amend the zoning bill so longtime farm owners could still give home sites to their immediate relatives.

Owens, who is Rutter's boss and who grew up on a farm in South County, said she probably will support Reilly's amendment.

"I want to protect the old-timer who's really in it for genuine reasons," Owens said.

But the county executive added that she would like to stop landowners from using the family provisions to build mini-subdivisions on their farms.

A vote on the issue could come as soon as Monday, but council members say they expect to debate the matter for much longer than that, possibly into next year.

Misused rules

The idea of eliminating "family conveyances" has its supporters, especially among open-space advocates who say the rules have been misused.

Ellen Pepin of the county's Sierra Club branch said the rule "has promoted suburban-type development in rural, agricultural areas."

"The character of the county's rural area has been significantly and adversely affected," she said.

The county's rural area zoning classification says farmland can 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.

Homes must be held by family members for five years before being sold.

The county passed family conveyance laws in 1981, after comprehensive zoning changes reduced development rights for farm owners.

Anne Arundel joined farm-heavy counties such as Carroll and Harford in offering the family-friendly laws as a form of compensation to farmers whose property values were lowered by zoning changes.

The county tightened the rules in 1996, adding the five-year ownership requirement and restricting conveyance rights to close relatives.

A study by the South County Exchange, a community organization devoted to land-use issues, found that landowners have used the conveyance rule to create 317 lots on 91 properties since 1996. About half of those lots are 3.1 acres or smaller - sizes more typical of suburban subdivisions than farmhouses, said Joan Turek, president of the exchange.

Turek supports the elimination of conveyances, which she said "permit one class of landowner to create unrestricted development."

Rutter said one 160-acre farm in the southern part of the county has 34 family homes on it. Most of the people angry about the change, he said, own parcels of 50 acres or smaller and many don't actively farm.

"They're not farms, they're not being farmed, they're subdivisions," Rutter said. Such examples are extreme enough to merit throwing out the whole program, he argued.

Property rights

The changes to family conveyance rules are part of a comprehensive revision of county zoning rules before the council for consideration. Rutter released the proposed changes, the most sweeping the county has seen in 30 years, in March.

Though few of the proposed revisions have stirred controversy, farmers and property rights advocates immediately seized on the family conveyance issue.

"My property rights have been steadily taken away from me," said Henry Schmidt, owner of a 140-acre farm in Pasadena. "I have five kids and seven grandkids, and I think it's very unfair that I can't devote a lot to each one of my kids. I think it's very unfair and selfish."

Farmers such as Schmidt said they already have given up too much as development rules have tightened over the past 25 years.

Joan Stockett said she has always farmed her 64 acres in Lothian with the idea of passing the parcel to her children. "We realize there's been some abuse done, but go after the abusers, not after landowners who legitimately want to give land to their families," she said.

Reilly said he does not want such families to be hurt by new zoning laws, though he does want to prevent conveyance rules from being used as backdoor development tools.

"We're trying to balance the need to keep South County rural with the need to protect property rights," he said.

Reilly said that balance could be achieved with a grandfather clause, which could apply to all who bought farms before 1981, when the conveyance laws were created, or all who bought farms before 1996, when the laws were tightened.

Longtime farm owners would have almost the same rights they have now, but land speculators could not swoop in and buy farms with the idea of using conveyance laws to develop, Reilly said.

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