Preserving Howard's farms

July 17, 2005

DOWN-ZONING - allowing fewer houses per acre - has been a dirty word in western Howard County, where rural land values have exploded along with the county's rising population and dwindling supply of building lots. Over the years, efforts to further limit development of this farmland have triggered angry backlashes from landowners and developers.

It's thus not surprising that a new county proposal to alter development rules in rural Howard is meeting resistance.

That's too bad, because slowing conversion of farms to residences is in the best interests of the entire county and the region. It's also needed because Howard's current farmland preservation incentives are inadequate. And not least, if Howard doesn't make this change, the state has threatened to cut off the county's agricultural preservation funds.

The county proposal - subject to hearings, more drafts and a County Council vote - would allow less housing in much of far western Howard, its designated rural conservation area; bar transfers of development rights to this area; and shift some of the county's allocation of new housing units from this area - to add affordable housing in more developed eastern Howard. County planners project that over 20 years, this would cut new houses in the rural west by 1,500 units and result in about 2,000 more acres of farmland put into preservation.

That's needed, because though the county had hoped to preserve 25,000 acres of farmland by 2000, it's only been able to set aside 19,200. Building in the conservation area is proceeding at almost the same rate and density as in designated rural residential areas along routes 32 and 216 - contrary to the county's goal. County preservation funds haven't kept pace with soaring land values, in part because current rules counterproductively still allow developers to transfer building rights to the far west.

As critics complain, the proposed rule changes probably would dent land values in western Howard - at least in the short term. But these values have soared beyond expectations of just a few years ago, and they're likely to resume growing as a result of the greater scarcity of allowable lots under the changes. Moreover, the new western Howard zoning would still allow greater housing density than protected areas of Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties.

Given Howard's prime location in the Baltimore-Washington corridor, development pressures on its farmland will not abate. Greater controls on building in its far west and better incentives to build elsewhere in the county keep faith with those farmers who long ago sold their development rights so they could continue farming. This proposal may lead to political frictions, but the county should be lauded for pressing ahead.

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