Growth tiers

Lambert and Marjorie Cissel pose for a portrait on their 180-acre farm in Lisbon. The Cissels worry a new state law will force them to develop their land to avoid losing its value. (Staff photo by Brian Krista / July 9, 2012)

Unlike the three generations of farmers in his family that came before him, Lambert Cissel was "fortunate enough" to buy hundreds of acres of land in western Howard County — land that until recently he planned to pass along to a fifth generation.

"I want my son and my grandson to continue farming, but they can't do it now," the 73-year-old said. "The state has forced me out of farming."

Cissel was referring to the new state law that was proposed by Gov.Martin O'Malleyand passed this spring by the General Assembly. The law requires counties to limit where major residential subdivisions can be built on septic systems.

Cissel's 180-acre farm, located off Route 144 in Lisbon, and his 49-acre farm, located off Jennings Chapel Road in Daisy, both fall in the area where Howard County is proposing to ban such development.

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Though Cissel does not want to develop his farms, the law would take away his right to do so, significantly undercutting the value of his land. Not wanting to lose that equity, which he uses to borrow money to run his farms, Cissel has applied for his properties to be grandfathered under the law.

He's not the only one. Owners of 10 of the 61 properties the county says would be affected by the law have applied for grandfathering, according to county officials.

And while farmers like Cissel worry about protecting their farms, the rush has others worried that the new law, meant to curb development of agricultural and forest land and reduce pollution from septic systems, might actually have the opposite effect, pushing rural property owners into developing their land.

"We could, in essence, be accelerating development in the rural west," County Council member Calvin Ball, a Columbia Democrat, said during a work session on the topic last week.

The law, at least in Howard County, "has already done more harm than good," added Councilman Greg Fox, a Fulton Republican.

Other counties also saw a flood of applications for grandfathering before the July 1 deadline, according to Maryland Department of Planning Secretary Richard Hall.

"It's not our intention for someone who wasn't inclined to develop their property to be motivated to go to subdivision because of the bill," he said.

Four growth tiers

Under the law, by Dec. 31 all local jurisdictions must submit to the state plans for dividing their land into four growth tiers:

• Tier I comprises areas served by public sewer;

• Tier II comprises areas planned for future extension of public sewer, which Howard County does not have;

• Tier III comprises areas planned for large lot development with septic systems; and

• Tier IV comprises areas dominated by agricultural and forest land planned for resource protection.

Marsha McLaughlin, director of the county Department of Planning and Zoning, explained the administration's proposal: The eastern part of the county, which is served by public sewer, would be designated as Tier I, while the rural west would be split between Tier III and Tier IV. The rural residential zoning district would be designated as Tier III and the rural conservation zoning district as Tier IV.

Properties designated as Tier IV would not be allowed to have septic systems in new major residential subdivisions, defined in Howard as land split into five or more lots. In the rural conservation district, McLaughlin said the typical lot size is 4.25 acres.

McLaughlin said the rural conservation zoning district has 61 properties not already protected from development through the county's agricultural preservation program or other easements that are large enough to accommodate a major residential subdivision. Together, the 61 properties have enough land to be split into 431 lots.