Housing and farms - an unhealthy proximity?

Grain silos at the Mullinix "home farm" on Howard Road in Dayton are visible behind the adjacent high-end homes built along Triadelphia Road, part of a new residential subdivision. (Amy Davis / November 14, 2012)

As state and local officials weigh Maryland's first request by any farmer to reclaim development rights voluntarily sold to the state decades ago, preservation advocates and state planners warn that permissive zoning in some rural counties threaten to erode the state's remaining open space.

The Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Foundation is holding a public hearing at 6 p.m. Thursday (11/15) at the Howard County Fairgrounds on the requests by a partnership of three county farmers, Mike, Steve and Mark Mullinix, to terminate easements barring development on three farms they operate with a combined 490 acres.

Although land preservation "easements" sold by farmers to the state now permanently bar development, owners can seek to terminate those bought by the state before September 2004 once 25 years have passed.  To get out of the state land preservation program, they must show that it's no longer feasible to farm the land. The Mullinix brothers' say in their request that they lost hundreds of thousands of dollars annually on all three farms from 2008 through 2010.

State and local officials will have to decide if the Mullinixes' request is warranted, but preservation advocates say there's a broader context for this case that warrants examination: development pressures continue to erode the state's vanishing open space, they contend, and the zoning and land-use policies of some rural counties aren't helping.

Dru Schmidt-Perkins, executive director of the land-preservation group 1000 Friends of Maryland, faults Howard County officials for making it harder for farmers to stay in business there.

“They zoned their rural lands for development,” she said, permitting homes to be built on lots as small as three acres. The result has been a checkerboard of farms and housing developments throughout the western portion of the county, raising land values and taxes on farmland and contributing to friction over the noise, odors and traffic issues related to farming operations.

Several years ago, before the recession, county officials rejected pressure from the state to down-zone Howard’s remaining rural lands to ease development pressure on farmers. Joy Levy, who administers the county's farmland preservation program, said property owners, including many farmers, objected to losing the option to sell their land for development, so the county instead has focused on buying up development rights from willing sellers and on helping farmers stay viable through changes to their operations and better marketing of their products.

About 40 percent of the western portion of the county has been protected from development, either as public land or under easements of some type on private land.  Most of the farmland preservation has been through easements purchased by the county rather than the state, as the county payments are much more generous than the state's.

Almost as much land in rural western Howard has been developed as has been set aside, however, leaving perhaps 14,000 acres in the balance that has not been preserved in some fashion or built on yet.

“There’s not a lot of play left there,” said Richard A. Hall, secretary of the Maryland Department of Planning. While some counties, notably Baltimore and Montgomery, have imposed strict limits on housing in rural areas - permitting no more than one home per 50 acres in rural northern Baltimore County, for instance - others have not gone as far to protect farming from development pressures.

“Where Howard is today, some other counties may be there a number of years from now,” Hall warned.

Though Maryland still has more than 2 million acres of farmland, it has lost a fifth of its croplands and pasture in the last 30 years alone, according to state planning figures. State lawmakers have set a goal of preserving half of what remains by 2022, and so far 563,000 acres have been set aside through four different state programs used to buy development rights from willing owners.  Local farmland preservation programs, like Howard’s, have preserved even more.

But state planners have warned that as the economy improves, another 226,000 acres of farmland could be developed in the next 25 years unless suburban sprawl can be reined in.

The O’Malley administration this year pushed the Sustainable Growth and Agricultural Preservation Act through the General Assembly, which aims to reduce rural land conversion by restricting large-scale development on septic systems. It remains to be seen how effective that will be, as the legislation had to be weakened to win enough votes to pass. And some rural politicians are forming a coalition to push back against it and other laws and regulations that they contend will stifle their local economies.