Bill Carter, who bought his 141-acre farm in 1995, feels that… (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore…)
When William G. Carter, Jr. wanted to construct an indoor riding ring on his Edgewater horse farm, county officials piled on the requirements.
For his proposed building, which would allow the dozen or so horses boarded at his 141-acre Dove Hill Farm to exercise indoors in inclement weather, Anne Arundel County building inspectors told Carter he would have to include emergency exits, bathrooms and a ramp for the disabled.
The add-ons, for a building not used by the general public, would have cost more than $100,000 — a cost that pushed Carter to drop his plan.
Now, as the County Council considers a bill that would update the local building code, Carter and others are pressing officials to exempt farmers from compliance with the standards for commercial buildings. If the changes aren't made, farmers and agriculture advocates say, the county risks driving farmers out of business.
"We're the last line of defense between open spaces and housing developments," said Carter, who has owned his horse and hay farm since 1996. "We weren't planning on holding rodeos and holding public events there.
"Just because I take you to a barn where I store hay, the county is saying somehow that building should be built to commercial standards. We're not a Home Depot, for goodness' sake."
The farm lobby also is pushing the county to relax regulations that require grading permits from the Department of Inspections and Permits for construction on farms. Farmers, who typically build small equipment and hay storage facilities, have historically received approval from the Anne Arundel Soil Conservation District, which is administered through the state and offers farmers cost-sharing for engineering and other planning work.
Last December, the county entered into a memorandum of understanding with the conservation district requiring stricter county oversight, citing environmental and public safety concerns. But farmers argue that the new rules, which require a grading permit when more than 5,000 square feet of land is disturbed — a tiny amount on a typical farm — can cost farmers thousands of dollars and force them out of business.
Alan R. Friedman, director of government relations for County Executive John R. Leopold, said the county understands the concerns and is prepared to introduce amendments to the bill to address some of the most pressing issues.
"This county executive put down political capital on the table to preserve the agricultural nature of South County," said Friedman. He added that Leopold agrees with the farmers' general goals, but the county has "an obligation to the general public to ensure that buildings are inspected and engineered properly."
Complicating matters, county officials say, is that much of the farmland is located near the shoreline, which means a set of strict environmental rules is enforced by a variety of state agencies.
"When you disturb more than 5,000 square feet and you're near the water, in this county, that causes problems," said Friedman. "We understand the Soil Conservation District helps them with their farm management plan, and maybe we can cut through some of the bureaucracy. But the minute we do that, the next thing we hear from the Critical Area Commission or the Department of the Environment, saying, 'You can't do that.'"
Friedman said the county is nevertheless "committed to trying to work through these interrelated issues with grading."
Steuart Pittman, a member of the board of the Anne Arundel County Farm Bureau and president of the Maryland Horse Council, said the tightening regulations come as farmers are becoming a disappearing species in the county.
A 2007 agricultural census — the most recent statistics available — shows 377 farms on 29,000 acres of land in Anne Arundel, down from 465 farms on 36,400 acres in 1997.
While tobacco was once king in Maryland, the labor-intensive crop has been surpassed by soybeans and corn. And many crop farmers are increasingly turning to horse farms, which are more lucrative, experts say.
"My God, this is making Anne Arundel County so unfriendly to agriculture, no one can modernize their farms," said Pittman. "There's a clash going on where the people in the bureaucracy don't understand agriculture and start looking at the farmer as a developer.
"When you start putting in place these requirements, you put people out of business, and if you don't, you keep them from modernizing and keeping up with the marketplace, which ultimately puts them out of business."
County Councilman Jerry Walker, a Gambrills Republican whose district includes many farms, also wants to amend the building code bill to meet concerns of the agricultural community.
"I'm going to try to relax these regulations," said Walker. "I want to try to preserve those farms, like everyone in South County."
Milly Welsh, who has a 20-acre farm in Davidsonville where she boards horses and a 97-acre farm in Prince George's County, said there's a marked contrast in dealing with officials from the two counties. She said Prince George's officials were "amazing," in comparison with those in Anne Arundel.
"My wish is that the [Anne Arundel] county government would expand the scope of what soil conservation is allowed to do, not narrow it," said Welsh, vice president of the local farm bureau. "It's hard to find engineers that are experts in farms. At soil conservation, there are engineers that are experts in farms.
"We're losing farmland at an amazing rate. If it becomes financially impossible for people to farm, Anne Arundel County's going to become even more urbanized."