Rural-land disputes divide committee

Conflicting views about preservation, owners' rights leave panel at impasse

Issues of preservation, sovereignty divide

October 09, 2005|BY A SUN REPORTER

Ann Mech and Randy Nixon have many similarities. They are devoted to the land, widely respected, selfless, thoughtful and abstain from extreme positions.

But the controversy over efforts to preserve farmland by imposing tighter restrictions on development in Western Howard County has created a chasm between the two.

Mech sees those efforts as necessary tinkering, while Nixon views them as a challenge to sovereignty and property rights.

The gap between them, though, is an emblem of the fissure on the citizens committee attempting to fashion a delicate compromise to foster conservation without financially harming large property owners and the homebuilding industry.

But the stakes are so high and the sentiments so fervent that a solution to the vexing controversy has eluded the committee even after more than a month of deliberations.

It's not clear whether the panel will finally decide to endorse changes to further constrain development and preserve more land in the west when it reconvenes Wednesday after a two-week break. While some anticipate a vote - and the Department of Planning and Zoning would prefer one - Nixon insists it's too soon.

"We are still in the process of digesting information," he said. "I don't think I am ready yet. ... Sober minds need to reflect. The county is well served if we don't rush to judgment."

Committee options

The committee's options seem few and not without their own problems:

Leave unchanged zoning regulations in the west. While that would clearly please some on the committee, such an action would likely be greeted as a slap in the face to the state, which is insisting that the county preserve more land and curb development in the west to keep its certification in the Maryland agriculture land preservation program.

Adopt a Planning Department-drafted compromise. The stumbling block to that, however, is a provision prohibiting property of at least 50 acres and zoned rural conservation (RC) from receiving density, or building rights.

Recommend a radical change, such as requiring developments in the east to purchase density. That is unlikely, though, for two reasons. First, many on the committee believe that any sweeping action is beyond their purview. Second, it would almost certainly be met with vigorous opposition and create a controversy of such scale that the County Council would want to avoid at all costs with next year's election approaching.

Approve modest changes - perhaps even the county's latest proposal - with a "sunset" provision, meaning zoning regulations would automatically revert to what they are now at a specified date unless the county enacts new and permanent policies. That would still result in uncertainty for large property owners, though, and, depending on the final regulations, perhaps ultimately lead to a significant loss in their land value.

There has been no proposal suggested that hasn't encountered immediate resistance from one side or another.

Indeed, the compromise recently suggested by Marsha S. McLaughlin, director of the Department of Planning and Zoning, has been criticized on both sides, although for vastly different reasons.

The proposal has two key elements. The first is the prohibition on receiving rights for properties of 50 acres or more. The second seeks to encourage preservation by permitting owners of RC property of 20 to 299 acres to sell density at one unit per 2.5 acres.

"The intent is to sweeten the pot," McLaughlin told the committee last month.

But the heart of the proposal is the prohibition. The department has sought from the beginning to stop property zoned RC from receiving building rights - a fundamental change in the county's regulations that has provoked harsh criticism from many.

"That's the key," Mech said. "That's the one that there has been the least bending on."

John Taylor, a former candidate for County Council and a self-described preservationist, said the plan, if adopted, would result in higher density in the west.

"She's going to put out a fire by spraying it with gasoline," Taylor said. "This is a terrible idea."

E. Alexander Adams, a land-use attorney whose clients include large property owners, said the county's latest proposal is doomed to failure because it fails to create a market for the building rights being sold from the west.

He also believes the proposal would cost owners of parcels of 50 acres or more millions of dollars in land value and would force some to develop their land rather than preserve it.

"This misses the mark by a wide margin," Adams said. " ... Their land is going to be worth significantly less.

"She's going in the wrong direction. It almost forces me to develop if I have a large parcel. I think it's going to accelerate development."

While neither Taylor nor Adams are on the committee, their responses illustrate the panel's difficulty in balancing sharply divergent views.

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