Calvin Ball and Greg Fox

When it came to approving the county administration's compromise bill on the growth tiers, Council members Calvin Ball, left, and Greg Fox were on opposite sides. (Staff photo by Sarah Pastrana, Patuxent Publishing / February 5, 2013)

After months of spirited and sometimes contentious debate, the Howard County Council Monday night voted 4-1 to approve land preservation legislation supported by the county administration that designates growth tiers required by state law.

The council also narrowly approved the controversial Community Enhancement Floating (CEF) zone and unanimously denied the Mullinix brothers' request to terminate Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Foundation easements during the two-hour session.

Howard County Executive Ken Ulman and the council have grappled over the past two months on how to implement a state law aimed at preserving farmland and the Chesapeake Bay. Municipalities throughout the state are required to define growth tiers designating development levels ranging from Tier I, the most developed area with public services, to Tier IV, which is zoned for agriculture and conservation.

Ulman vetoed the council's first plan on Dec. 12. The county administration then proposed a compromise that allows farmers — who have been forced to consider developing their farmland as a result of the statewide bill — a designation of Tier III. It is intended to give farmers more time to consider entering the county's agricultural preservation program instead of selling their land for development.

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The administration also is proposing to move up to $3.5 million from the general fund to expand its preservation program, allowing more farmers to participate.

The council's action Monday only approved a growth tiers map. It still must deliberate on additional land preservation legislation that is part of the compromise before a vote is taken March 5.

The map approved by the council designates properties zoned rural residential as Tier III and properties zoned rural conservation as Tier IV, except for those who have "grandfathered" their property and thus preserved their development rights.

The council chose this solution over a bill proposed by council member Greg Fox, which was similar to the original map approved by the council in December. The council's map had only assigned parcels in western Howard County that are currently preserved or designated as priority preservation areas as Tier IV.

During the months-long debate, some farmers argued that being placed in Tier IV would devalue their land to the point where they had no choice but to sell it for development. Some farmers said they had already spent nearly $100,000 in "grandfathering" their property to move forward with a percolation test, which is done before a septic tank can be installed.

Marsha McLaughlin, the county's Director of Planning and Zoning, said the map approved Monday is an improvement over the original because it allows farmers more time to consider their options.

"We think that this is a much better map because it reflects the nuances and differences rather than relying strictly on the two zoning categories," she said.

The county's original proposed map designated land zoned rural conservation as Tier IV and land zoned rural residential as Tier III.

Fox, in his sixth year and council's lone Republican, cast the only vote against the new map and said it was one of his "saddest days" as a council member.

He argued that the administration's bill strips property owners of their rights.

"It doesn't just sadden me, it sickens me," he said before voting no on the administration's map.

Council member Calvin Ball said the compromise is a "bold and comprehensive" package for land preservation in the county.

"This is a package that should address just about everybody's concerns," he said.

Council member Mary Kay Sigaty said she supports the intent of the state bill, but was "very angry" at the state for its inability to see the uniqueness of different jurisdictions.

"One size does not fit all," she said.

Council member Courtney Watson, who cast the lone vote against the council's original map, said passing Fox's proposed map would have subjected the county and its farm owners to consequences from the state.