As the county weighs its next move to preserve land and curb development in western Howard County, the county's planning director once again has urged action in light of the state's threat not to recertify county participation in the Maryland agriculture land preservation program unless the county protects more farmland.
"We must respond to the state," said Marsha S. McLaughlin, director of the Department of Planning and Zoning. In granting the county "conditional certification," the state imposed a May deadline for stronger development controls to be implemented.
The county suffered a setback last week when a citizens committee declined to endorse zoning changes that were designed to further restrict subdivisions and place farmland into preservation in the west.
The committee, appointed by McLaughlin in hopes of finding a compromise to the sensitive issue, took no formal votes during its five weekly meetings, but there was a consensus against a key element of the plan: to prohibit property of 50 acres or more and zoned rural conservation (RC) from acquiring density, or building rights, as now permitted.
The Planning Department has always opposed allowing RC property from acquiring building rights, but the County Council in 1992 approved the modification. While McLaughlin believes that was a mistake, she acknowledges that property owners in the west "clearly had built their plans around" that provision.
The 19-member panel feared abolishing that right would significantly reduce property values and it objected to changing regulations to deal with what many viewed as a political, not zoning, issue.
McLaughlin acknowledged "disappointment" with the outcome of the committee's deliberations, but said its work helped the county move in the "right direction."
"I was hopeful that land preservation would be a counterweight to the dollars, but property interests totally trumped ag preservation," she said.
McLaughlin said no decision will be made on what to do next until she discusses the matter with County Executive James N. Robey. That meeting may not occur until next week.
There are three ways the county can achieve its goal.
The first is through restrictive zoning, but that attempt, announced in July, prompted widespread protests and opposition.
The second is by slowing the pace of growth. That, too, was an element of McLaughlin's plan, and called for reducing by 100 the number of housing units that could be built and transferring those homes elsewhere in the county.
The third is by beefing up the preservation program. A county official said the intention always was to confront the issue on all three fronts.
McLaughlin said her department is working with the county's land preservation board "on how we can make it more attractive" for large landowners to place property into preservation and shield it from development.
That is in line with a suggestion by the citizens committee, which urged greatly increased payments for farmland.
The county can offer a maximum of $20,000 an acre, although that level is rarely reached. As land values have skyrocketed in the past five years and with developers normally paying $35,000 to $40,000 an acre or more, the county has been unable to make it economically feasible for property owners to enter the preservation program.
Indeed, the county has roughly $13 million in unspent funds for the acquisition of building rights in the west.
Property owners do not sell their land. Rather, they sell the right to develop it, thus placing their land in preservation, and the building rights are transferred to other areas where the county encourages development.
The county has preserved 4,000 acres through the state's program, and roughly another 15,000 through its own agricultural preservation efforts.
If Howard County lost certification in the state's program, it would mean the loss of several thousand dollars a year and also the loss of the state's stamp of approval. It would not mean, however, that the county could not continue to acquire building rights and place property in the state conservation program.
McLaughlin said while it is unclear what revisions to the preservation program will be recommended, she remains hopeful a solution can be found that will protect large parcels from development while protecting people's land values.
"We have until May," she said, "so it's not a now-or-nothing situation."