Suburbia, farm preservation clash in Shore county

Queen Anne's crop of homes highlights statewide problem

April 16, 2005|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

Four years ago, in what was hailed then as the largest land preservation deal in Maryland history, officials paid $8 million to the owner of Chino Farms in Queen Anne's County to ensure that its 5,000 acres along the Chester River would remain home to bald eagles, endangered squirrels and thousands of ducks and geese.

Now, 114 suburban homes are planned on a neighboring farm, and more may be on the way for Chino's other borders.

The situation, playing out now before the county's planning commission, highlights the growing challenges of preserving farming in Maryland as suburbia spreads across the state.

"It's certainly not what I expected when I did this," said Dr. Henry F. Sears, a retired Boston surgeon who, in preserving his farm, gave up the right to build hundreds of homes on land his family has owned since the 1930s.

He contends that suburban-style development around his farm will degrade the wildlife habitat and natural areas on his still-working farm that were preserved by the taxpayers.

"Our neighbors all around us have decided this is a bonanza," he said.

Jeff Thompson, the lawyer for the owner of the neighboring farm, countered that the proposed subdivision next to Chino Farms would help preserve hundreds of acres of farmland elsewhere in the county. He said Sears was trying to prevent others from profiting off their land, as he has.

"It's the same old, same old -- he's got his and doesn't want anybody else to have theirs," Thompson said.

The 2001 deal to preserve Chino Farms -- now incorporated as Grasslands Plantations Inc. -- was supposed to be the cornerstone of a broader effort by the state and conservation groups to protect the Chester River, a Chesapeake Bay tributary. However, the plan faltered as government funding to preserve farmland and other open space was slashed during the state's budget crisis.

Now, spurred by the real estate frenzy that is driving up housing and land prices throughout much of Maryland, a growing number of farmers in this Eastern Shore county just across the Bay Bridge apparently are looking to sell some of their fields for a new kind of crop. Queen Anne's is the state's seventh-fastest-growing county, according to the latest Census Bureau estimates.

As recently as three years ago, farming was a $66 million-a-year industry in the county. But in the past year, more than 900 applications have been filed with the health department for soil testing to determine where homes might be built using septic systems, according to John Nickerson, environmental health director. That is nearly three times the number of such requests the department normally gets, he said. This week, noting that many of those soil tests are scattered throughout areas of the county zoned for farming, the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy warned that such residential development would threaten the viability of agriculture in the county. The group vowed to highlight the need for reforms in Queen Anne's growth management policies.

"This is some of the richest farmland on the Eastern Shore," said Amy Owsley, land use director for the conservancy, which has preserved 36,000 acres in six counties by convincing landowners to donate or sell their development rights. "We have to find solutions quickly, or we're losing the battle."

Plans have been proposed to build more than 500 homes in 17 residential subdivisions in and around already preserved farmland, according to county data compiled by the conservancy. Most of the properties being tested for septic suitability likely will show up for development approval in a year or two.

County officials say they have been working to keep a lid on development and to preserve Queen Anne's farmland. They note that a task force recently recommended several steps under consideration for protecting the county's working farms and its scenic country roads, including establishment of a county program to buy farmers' development rights to supplement the state effort.

However, conservancy officials and Sears contend that much of the problem lies with Queen Anne's zoning, which permits more homes to be built on rural land than would be allowed in some other counties.

The county's rural zoning permits one home on every 8 acres of land -- compared with one home per 20 acres in neighboring Kent County -- but it also allows a developer to acquire home-building rights from other landowners and concentrate them on one tract at an even greater density.

Since its inception in 1987, the county's "noncontiguous" development rights transfer program has been used to build more than 600 homes more compactly on rural land, said Faith Elliott-Rossing, planning and zoning director. It also has preserved more than 4,400 acres, she pointed out, because the owners gave up their legal rights to build anything when they sold the development rights.

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