Landowners in west fighting changes

Suburbanites, rural property owners at odds over development.

August 05, 2005|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

As Howard County's suburbanites press for slower growth, rural western county landowners are pushing hard to stave off tighter residential zoning restrictions, putting a spotlight on growing development tensions.

One vivid illustration: the western county farmers who lined up 20 big tractors in front of Glenelg High School on Tuesday night as more than 200 rural landowners told Marsha L. McLaughlin, the county planning director, that proposed zoning changes would be akin to stealing the value of their land.

Their response is a sharp contrast to the move this spring by suburban residents who petitioned to referendum a series of zoning changes in a bid to slow development.

McLaughlin has proposed slowing development by allowing one house per 10 acres rather than one per 4.25 acres; preventing the sale and transfer of building rights to farmland; increasing minimum lot sizes on rural conservation land; and cutting the annual number of homes allowed to be built in the west to 150 from 250.

If the changes were to be adopted, owners of a 75-acre parcel zoned for farming could, by right, build seven homes instead of 17 - but could sell the rights to build 25 homes on land zoned for residential use. Under current law, such an owner could buy zoning density and build up to 37 homes, but the changes would prevent that.

At this week's meeting, landowners complained the county wants to devalue their land and then buy it cheap for preservation - destroying family estate plans based on current rules.

"We have to respect property rights," said Randall Nixon, whose West Friendship family operates a catering hall and picnic grounds on 127 acres along Route 32.

Nixon said he served on a county commission 13 years ago that was supposed to be the final word on restricting home building in the western county. To change the rules now, he and other owners said, isn't fair.

His mother, Mildred, emphasized the point.

"I've been at Nixon's Farm for 50 years. It's very important not to have it devalued. That [land] is our future," she admonished McLaughlin.

Jack Kissane, who owns 19 acres in Glenelg, suggested at the meeting that instead of limiting building in the west, the county should open it up and transfer 500 housing allocations from Columbia.

"Let's get back to a model for townhouses for [grown] children and workers," he said, as others lamented what they see as the county's conversion of the rural west to an exclusive preserve for the wealthy.

Richard M. Hough, who owns 30 acres in Mount Airy, the remnant of what was once a 200-acre family farm, said it's too late to worry about farming in Howard County.

"The exodus of farmers began in the '60s" he said. "The exodus is now almost complete. Save what? Be real. Look around. Farmland?"

McLaughlin and county planner Mina Hilsenrath, however, said that a provision in the county's development rules is allowing some of the best farmland to be sold more quickly for development.

That provision allows property owners to sell their home building rights to those with land zoned for farming. The combination of a shrinking supply of land and sharply higher land prices means that Howard's rural land is sprouting McMansions faster than ever.

As a result of that change, Hilsenrath said, land zoned for farm use is being developed as quickly as land zoned for residential use.

What's happening, she said, is that only rural land that can't be developed - steep slopes, floodplain and riverbanks - are being preserved via development rights transfers, while the best farmland is sprouting houses because it can accept a septic system. The western county has no public water or sewerage.

With developers paying $40,000 an acre or more, the county can't compete and is getting no closer to the goal of preserving an additional 5,490 acres for a total of 25,000 acres in preservation.

State planners also are pressuring the county, threatening decertification from state agricultural preservation programs, which could help reverse progress in saving farmland, she said.

McLaughlin said that in addition to losing state funding for the program, loss of state certification could hurt the county more starting next year.

That's when the first of 4,000 acres preserved under an old state program become eligible for removal, if owners can prove farming the land is no longer feasible. Lawyers could argue that state decertification proves that farming in Howard no longer works, she said.

State Sen. Allan H. Kittleman, a Republican who represents the area, scoffed at those fears, and told the crowd that Howard County Executive James N. Robey repeatedly has promised that he would not downzone the western county.

Victoria Goodman, Robey's spokeswoman, said, "I don't know that it was a promise. It would be foolish to find out that something wasn't working the way it was supposed to and not correct it. This was one solution. The executive wanted to roll this out and see what the public felt about it. That's what these meetings are for."

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