Plan to tighten zoning restrictions has farm family alarmed and angry

Martha and Harold Clark love the land and its traditions, but they are concerned that a proposal to further limit development will create `mayhem' for their heirs and others.

July 24, 2005|BY A SUN STAFF WRITER

Martha and Harold Clark learned the value of estate planning the hard way. They vowed never again.

Over three years, the Clarks got their affairs in order, certain that their three children and five grandchildren would be financially secure.

In the past two weeks, though, their confidence has turned to alarm, anger and a sense of betrayal.

The causes of their profound emotional shift are proposed changes to further restrict development in western Howard County.

Those changes, Martha Clark says, will produce economic "mayhem" for her heirs and for other farming families in the county.

Harold Clark (everyone calls him Bucky) avoids discussing the issue because he straddles two worlds as a property-rights farmer and as a member of the advisory board to the county's agriculture land preservation program.

So Martha Clark does the talking, and she is furious.

"It's a disaster," she says. "They're going to cause severe damage to people."

The proposals were drafted by the county's Department of Planning and Zoning under a threat from Annapolis of banishment from the state's land preservation program if stricter controls on growth were not adopted.

The department is recommending, among other things, a prohibition on selling density, or building rights, with the region zoned rural conservation, which includes the majority of land in the west. It further proposes to restrict cluster subdivisions in that area to one unit per 10 acres from one unit per 4.25 acres.

The consequences would be catastrophic for her family, Clark says.

The Clarks own Edgewood Farms in Glenelg, where they raise a few beef cattle and grow grain, field corn, soybeans and barley.

"The land is a farmer's retirement, and it's a business asset," she says. "The changes would decrease our estate by a considerable amount. We're talking a lot of money here ... millions of dollars."

That's the last thing the Clarks feared.

The couple realized the importance of estate planning after Harold Clark's father died in 1981.

"We ended up paying huge, huge estate taxes," Martha Clark says.

They were forced to sell several hundred acres of Edgewood Farms to pay the taxes, she says.

Protecting their children from a similar outcome became a priority.

Since the 1700s

Edgewood Farms has been in the family since the late 1700s. It once consisted of 1,000 acres, including a dairy operation, but the settlement and farming economics have left the farm about half that size.

Edgewood is jointly owned by Harold Clark, his brother and their wives.

The Clarks began estate planning in earnest about three years ago.

"We have two families involved," Martha Clark says. "That requires two estate plans. They have theirs, and we have ours."

The estate plans are based on the assumption "that we would have this much equity in this many acres based on the zoning."

The county's proposed changes would render that meaningless, she says.

The construction industry, land-use lawyers and some farmers have accused the county of precipitously proposing changes that would harm some property owners significantly.

Marsha S. McLaughlin, director of the Department of Planning and Zoning, has said that she hopes to have the changes approved by the County Council in October.

Critics say the changes are being rushed to prevent large property owners from selling their land and that they conflict with the general plan, the 10-year blueprint guiding how and where the county will grow.

"While they [county officials] were going through the comprehensive rezoning plan two years ago, I asked Marsha on a number of occasions, `Do you intend to change the zoning in the west?' and explained to her that we were looking at estate planning," Clark says. "And she said to me more than one time, `No. We don't intend to change the west.'

`At stake'

"Obviously, she meant it because they didn't propose any major changes during the comprehensive plan. ... You don't change your mind when people's retirement and inheritance are at stake."

McLaughlin acknowledges that there were no plans to change zoning in the western part of the county, but she says her hand was forced by the state as a condition for recertifying the county's participation in the Maryland agriculture preservation program.

Beyond that, she has said that her department's review of the county's preservation program, which is independent of the state's, revealed development trends in the west that were neither anticipated nor intended.

Officials say farmland is being developed 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 principal reason for the trend, they say, is soaring land prices. With developers paying $30,000 to $40,000 an acre, sometimes more, farmers have no economic incentive to place their property in permanent preserve, especially when the county can pay them no more than $20,000 an acre.

An illustration of the conflict is seven-tenths of a mile from Edgewood Farms, where Triadelphia Crossing, expansive luxury homes on large lots that cost $1 million or more, is springing up.

Developer's pitch

The development's literature says the subdivision is "situated in a picturesque wooded setting among sprawling horse farms."

The county hopes to preserve more property like that with the proposed changes. Critics say the plan amounts to little more than confiscation.

"Because of current zoning, we know what we can do with our land," Clark says. "The intention is to save a portion of it for them ... but if I'm going to die and somebody is going to get it, I'd rather have my children have it than the IRS.

"The intention is not for them to have to sell it. But I want them to have the right to sell it. If they would need the money to pay their inheritance ... they should have the right to sell it, and to capitalize it."

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