Small purple wildflowers dot sections of northern Baltimore County's rolling roads, where the only sounds are the chirps of birds and insects. Rows of corn and soybeans grow along other stretches.
Now, many residents fear the land's environmental resources and natural beauty — its farms, open fields and greenery — are being threatened by dozens of requests that would allow more development on large rural tracts. On Tuesday, the County Council is scheduled to make crucial decisions on hundreds of acres in a district stretching from Lutherville to the Pennsylvania border, as part of a countywide rezoning process that occurs every four years.
Those who want to limit development in communities such as Sparks, White Hall and Parkton point to environmental concerns and the area's agricultural history. They also fear new residential building would further crowd northern Baltimore County schools.
At the same time, some property owners have taken issue with preservationists' efforts to limit development of about 1,000 acres in the district. They say it isn't right for others to devalue their property by blocking future development potential through zoning requests.
"We don't want our zoning changed by anyone other than by ourselves or our children," residents George and Barbara Thompson wrote in a letter to the county after preservationists requested a reclassification of their land. "We do not interfere with what other people do with their land, and they have no right to butt into our business."
Among the dozens of zoning petitions are requests for increased development potential on 175 acres along Stockton Road; 66 acres at the Mount Carmel Tree Farm in Parkton; 96 acres on Belfast Road; 116 acres on Phoenix Road; and 105 acres on Quaker Bottom Road.
In another request involving a large piece of land, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore wants to change the zoning of 220 acres along Belfast Road near Sparks Elementary School — land mostly zoned for agriculture now — to a rural residential classification. The archdiocese wants to build a cemetery that would take up between 40 and 80 acres over the next 50 to 100 years, according to a letter the archdiocese sent to county officials.
In the Loveton area, Obrecht Properties wants to rezone about 19 acres currently designated for light manufacturing use to dense residential, which would allow for the construction of up to 80 townhomes at the site along York Road at Fila Way.
A smaller piece of land has also drawn residents' concerns. The Manor Tavern restaurant in Monkton wants to increase the development potential of about six acres.
The requests have put the spotlight on Councilman Todd Huff, who took office in 2010 and must consider 71 zoning petitions in his district. The Lutherville Republican said he is still weighing the issues and would not comment until after the council votes.
The Sparks-Glencoe Community Planning Council, a group dedicated to preserving the area's rural character and natural resources, says many of the large properties that could be "upzoned" are currently farmed and have water resources. Also, many of the properties are near conservation land, according to the organization.
The group is concerned about environmental issues such as the impact of impervious surfaces on water quality, president Kirsten Burger said.
"We're trying to convince Councilman Huff to look at the big picture of what's good for the community, rather than the pocketbook of the property owners," she said.
Huff's predecessor, Republican Bryan McIntire, strongly supported land preservation, limiting the development potential of many acres over the years, Burger said.
"This will be Councilman Huff's first [zoning] cycle," Burger said. "So we don't know what he's going to do yet. … We're somewhat afraid that for the first time in many, many years, there will be no increase in the amount of land that's protected."
Wayne McGinnis, a county planning board member and farmer in White Hall, said that when homes are built near farms, "it interferes with the ability of the person who's in food production to do his business."
Although development plans do not accompany all the requests, property owners often seek higher zoning classifications to increase the value of the land if they ever sell it.
McGinnis, a longtime advocate of farmland preservation, said county officials should not make decisions based on a property owner's potential to profit. "It's not the intention of zoning," he said.
During his campaign, Huff said he was concerned both with land preservation and protecting property owners' land value.
"I will help Northern Baltimore County remain as beautiful as it is now by limiting development," his campaign website states. "We also need to protect property rights by preserving the value of the land and stop forcing farmers into selling their land in order to survive."
Burger and others say that allowing more development in the area would contradict planning policies that call for growth to be concentrated within the area served by public water and sewer infrastructure.
The group is seeking to protect several large tracts of land totaling about 1,000 acres in White Hall, Monkton and Parkton. Much of the land has rivers and streams that empty into the Loch Raven Reservoir, according to the group. However, county planning staff has recommended against the group's requests.
White Hall resident David Boyd said he's tired of preservationists trying to change the zoning of his property. He has 16 acres of woods and said he already participates in a state conservation program.
Boyd said his family has no plans to develop the land, but the option should be available in case his grown daughters, who would inherit the property, change their minds someday.
"I don't want that taken away from me," he said.
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