Farmers mired in curbs on density

County wants to protect those who sold rights

others object

Millions of dollars said to be at stake


A central question has emerged in the fight over proposed zoning changes that would further restrict development in western Howard County: Are farmers being protected or punished?

Not surprisingly, the two sides on the issue have starkly different answers on the proposals that could affect the future of land worth millions of dollars in potential development.

The key proposals, announced last week by the county, would restrict cluster subdivisions in that part of the county to one unit per 10 acres from one unit per 4.25 acres; prohibit the selling of building rights on land zoned rural conservation; and reduce over three years to 150 from 250 the number of homes permitted on rural conservation property.

Land zoned rural conservation includes most of western Howard County and is the focus of the county's preservation efforts.

Marsha S. McLaughlin, director of the Department of Planning and Zoning, reiterated during a briefing this week that the changes are necessary for the county to retain certification in the state's agriculture land preservation program.

But, she said, the purposes reach beyond satisfying state bureaucrats.

The county, she said, is trying to "preserve the investment we've already made" in purchasing building rights from farmers so that their land is permanently preserved from development.

With the proposed changes, she said, "We're essentially fulfilling a commitment we made to the farmers in the early '80s and early '90s. ... They sold their development rights to the program. And they sold them, frankly, [for] a fraction of what the market is today. They didn't make a killing.

"We feel we have an obligation to those farmers to minimize the amount of new subdivisions that are occurring in and amongst their farms."

Critics of the plan, which include developers, land-use attorneys, some farmers and inheritors of large, uncommitted property in the western county, regard the proposed changes as a violation of commitments made in the county's general plan, and say the changes will cost some property owners millions of dollars.

"There are people who waited and did not cash in," said E. Alexander Adams, an attorney whose clients include farmers and large property owners in western Howard County. "Those are the ones who will be most significantly punished. ... I never thought the county would do this in such a precipitous manner."

Adams said the general plan - the blueprint on how and where the county will develop - assured the public that profound changes would not occur in the western region.

The latest general plan states, he said, that earlier efforts to lower density in the west "`failed due to farmers' strenuous objections and legitimate concerns that [it] devalues farm equity and decreases their ability to borrow funds. ... Furthermore, it is counterproductive to the goal of providing support to and predictability for the agricultural community. It also penalizes those who have remained in farming, when others sold out to development.'"

Developers have been reluctant to speak publicly about the issue, but several have said privately that they will fight to defeat the zoning changes.

County officials insist the changes are necessary to correct unanticipated development in the western part of the county. An analysis showed that farmland is being subdivided with about the same density as are properties zoned rural residential, where the county has tried to concentrate most of the homebuilding in the west.

The results, they said, are greater density in the west and less land preservation. The county has placed about 19,200 acres into agriculture preservation. The county once hoped to reach 25,000 acres in preservation, but it has lowered that target to 21,000 acres.

The zoning changes, Mc- Laughlin said, are expected to help the county achieve that goal.

They also are expected to help the county win recertification in the state's agriculture preservation program. The state has withheld certification since 2001 because it says too much development has been permitted and has threatened to, in effect, remove Howard County from the program. Such a move would cost the county at least $300,000 a year from the state in land transfer taxes.

Adams said he believes the county's preservation goals are being met and that the changes would "stick a dagger in the heart" of many property owners with "far-reaching monetary and economic effects.

"They are so out of touch with the private sector," he said, referring to planning officials. "They don't have a clue of the amount of money involved. It's worth millions. You have people who have made long-range plans. They could be wiped out."

Critics say the changes are being rushed. But McLaughlin said the county must act quickly to avoid a rush of subdivision applications in the west to avoid the new regulations.

"That happens any time there is any possibility of subdivision or zoning regulations changing," she said. "We're committed to finding that balance between having an open process and giving everybody as much time to participate. ... But I think we don't want to have it be a very long window, because people then will try to stampede in. It's very hard to live in limbo.

"You can't do deals when you don't know what the rules are. ... The longer we're in flux about what the rules are, the harder it is on people."

Adams predicted a "huge fight" over the proposals, and said there could be political ramifications in next year's elections from the outcome.

"You have people running for office and asking for donations," he said. "Sometimes people make donations in a positive way, and sometimes in a negative fashion. That will be explored fully."

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