Tighter land limits sought

Proposed changes would further inhibit development in west

`This isn't about money'

Md. seeks more aggressive preservation efforts


Faced with unrelenting pressure from the state and acknowledging that their land preservation programs have not succeeded as hoped, officials have proposed significant changes to further inhibit development in western Howard County.

The proposals were immediately greeted with skepticism and opposition from the development community, assuring a heated debate that will engulf planning officials and the County Council at a time when they already are targets of criticism over land-use policies.

Marsha L. McLaughlin, director of the Department of Planning and Zoning, which drafted the proposed changes, said they would protect the agricultural economy and enhance the county's ability to shield land from development.

The key changes would:

Reduce over three years to 150 from 250 the number of housing units permitted on land zoned rural conservation (RC), which includes most of western Howard County and is the primary focus of the county's preservation efforts.

Restrict cluster subdivisions in the RC district to one unit per 10 acres from one unit per 4.25 acres.

Prohibit the selling of density, or building rights, within the RC district.

The impetus for the proposals, McLaughlin said, has been insistence from the state to be more aggressive in preserving from development land in the county's western region.

"We have struggled for five or more years about the certificaiton of the agricultural preservation program," McLaughlin told a group of homebuilders, attorneys specializing in land use and the farming community at a meeting Wednesday. "We have resisted their pushes to turn us into Montgomery County."

But, she said, the county has until next spring to adopt more restrictive regulations or face removal from Maryland's agricultural preservation program.

The county, McLaughlin said, receives about $300,000 - and sometimes more - annually from the state for participation in the program.

But, she said, "This isn't about money. ... It's about the viability of the farmland."

An analysis revealed that farmland is being developed with about the same density as are properties zoned rural residential (RR), where the county has tried to concentrate most of the homebuilding in the west, said Elmina J. Hilsenrath, division chief of Environmental and Community Planning.

"We never envisioned that happening," Hilsenrath said after the meeting.

The main culprit is soaring land prices in the county, McLaughlin said. With developers offering $30,000 and more an acre, farmers have little economic incentive to place their property into permanent preserve, especially when the county can pay them only up to $20,000 an acre.

To underscore that, McLaughlin said that the county has been unable to spend more than about $3 million of $15 million set aside to purchase building rights and place land into preserve.

The result, officials said, is that the county has placed about 19,200 acres into agriculture preserve - far short of the almost 25,000 acres it had hoped for. Hilsenrath said the county has lowered its estimates to about 21,000 acres.

Members of the building community have voiced surprise and opposition to the proposed zoning changes.

They said the process is being rushed, the proposals not thoroughly considered and that some property owners stand to lose substantial amounts.

The proposals represent "monumental changes, especially in the RC district," said attorney E. Alexander Adams. He said the changes should have been considered as part of the county's comprehensive zoning process, which led to the latest general plan. The plan sets land-use policies for a decade.

Richard B. Talkin, one of the most sought-after and influential land-use attorneys in the county, said the changes will economically injure "people who didn't expect to be affected negatively.

"The only people you're punishing are the people you're trying to benefit."

McLaughlin said the county intends to hold public meetings on the proposals, beginning this month, so that the Planning Board may consider them early next month. The changes would go to the County Council in mid-September.

Projects under way and technically complete by October would not be subject to the new regulations, McLaughlin said.

The builders, though, said the process is being rushed and that many people would be unable to develop their land or sell building rights within that time.

"What you've done to people," protested Adams, "is to give them no chance to respond. ... I can't identify anything the county has done that has helped the farmer."

McLaughlin said her department will work with developers and farmers on possible modifications. But officials also left no doubt that the county must restrict development in the west.

"Unless we implement some changes, we will lose the [state agriculture preservation] program," Hilsenrath said.

The debate over the proposals will only increase pressure on the the Planning Board and County Council. They already have been criticized by some opposing two large planned communities - Turf Valley and Maple Lawn - and those dissatisifed with the county's comprehensive zoning process.

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