The landscape of Howard County's "rural west" — the chunk of the county roughly west of Route 108 and Centennial Lane — is set for the moment, and most owners hold the right to develop their land, or not, as they wish.
This could change, though, depending on the outcome of discussions that have been going on behind the scenes in county government.
The debate could emerge at the County Council on Monday, as the panel takes up its disagreement with County Executive Ken Ulman's administration regarding development rights in that area, 94,201 acres that make up nearly 60 percent of all the county's land.
The west's representative on the council, Greg Fox, filed the first bill of 2013, one that would make a slight adjustment to the land-use map that was adopted by the council last month — and vetoed by County Executive Ken Ulman, a Democrat.
Fox, the council's only Republican, opposed the administration's map, saying it deprived land owners of development rights and land value without compensation, and was pushing some owners into development before they really wanted to do that.
It was the first time Ulman had vetoed a bill since he took office six years ago.
Ulman said that since taking that step, he's talked with council members about a way to sustain his veto. The land-use map adopted by the council was approved by a 4-1 vote, and that same margin would override Ulman's veto. The executive needs a 3-2 vote or better to keep his veto, meaning he needs at least one council member to switch his or her vote.
On Monday, the council is obliged to vote on the veto, said Stephen LeGendre, council administrator.
The panel will also introduce the bill filed by Fox, which he said is meant to serve two purposes: to address objections stated by Councilwoman Courtney Watson, the lone vote against the amended map; and get a jump on new legislation, in case the veto is sustained.
"If the veto didn't get overturned," he said, the bill is "to make sure we have a bill to start with."
The contest of land-use maps stems from a state law adopted last year to protect the Chesapeake Bay, by curbing development on septic systems and the nutrient pollution they generate.
The county had until Dec. 31 to adopt a map designating four areas for different degrees of development, or "growth tiers" — from intensely developed areas served by public water and sewer, to conservation areas served by septic systems.
"Tier IV" is to be designated as the conservation district, limited to what the state law calls "minor" housing subdivisions. In Howard, that means developments of no more than four lots.
The law does not give the state the authority to tell the counties how to set up the four districts, but local jurisdictions must have some sort of approved map, or lose major subdivision rights on septic systems until a map is approved.
Currently, subdivisions larger than four lots on septic systems cannot be approved in Howard because no such map exists. The council and Ulman are trying to work that out.
The dilemma is not unique to Howard. According to John Coleman, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Planning, only 11 of Maryland's 23 counties approved maps as required by the state law by the Dec. 31 deadline. The other 12, including Howard, have not.
Howard's debate over the land-use map has gone from planners to the council to the executive, and now back to the council.
The map initially submitted by the Department of Planning and Zoning designated the current rural conservation zone – nearly 62,000 acres — as the most restrictive Tier IV. That drew protest from many farmers, who claimed the county was effectively stealing the value of their land by drastically limiting the number of lots that could be developed.
The amended map adopted by the council declared as Tier IV only those properties already in some form of agricultural or rural preservation, roughly 27,000 acres, plus three other properties that had also been in the planning department's Tier IV map —
the Retreat and Conference Center at Bon Secours in Marriottsville, the Shrine of St. Anthony Franciscan Friary in Ellicott City, and the University of Maryland's agricultural research complex in Clarksville.
Those three properties, mostly undeveloped but not in preservation, comprise nearly 1,500 acres.
Watson voted against that map on the grounds of "fairness" She said the three unpreserved properties were lumped in with those whose owners had given up development rights, and cited an email to the council from Sr. Rose Marie Jasinski of Bon Secours, asking that their property be taken out of that designation.
Larry Kaskel, operations director at the Bon Secours center, said there are buildings on only about six of the 312 acres there, and no plans to develop the rest. Still, he said the center would like to at least preserve their development rights for the future.
Fox's legislation would allow them to do that. It would put those three properties into the so-called Tier III, which corresponds to the county's rural residential zone. Zoning in that 32,330 acres is meant to encourage large lot subdivisions on septic systems.
But Watson said the Fox bill would not necessarily win her vote, as it "doesn't address other concerns" she has about the amended map. She declined to say what those are.
"I want to give the process a chance to work between the executive and the council," said Watson, who said she had been in touch with Ulman and members of his staff by phone and email. "I just want to respect the process. Right now we're starting over."
She spoke by phone this past week while heading down to Cambridge for the three-day Maryland Association of Counties winter conference in Cambridge, on the Eastern Shore. All five council members and Ulman were expected to converge on the waterfront setting, where they expect to talk about this legislation.
Fox said he had no contact with Ulman since the veto, and did not see the point of starting over on a process that began in the summer.
"I don't know what it gains us," said Fox.
Ulman was not saying if he had turned any votes his way.
Reached on his way to Cambridge, he said "myself and members of my staff are having good, positive conversations" with council members.
"I'm optimistic," he said. "There's been a willingness by a majority of the council to engage with us."