The farmers carried signs protesting the devaluation of their property. In an interview last month, Marge Cissel called the state law "legalized stealing."

The scene outside the building was a deja vu moment for those who lived through the farmland battles of the 1980s. In 1985 and 1988, farmers riding about 30 tractors paraded to a public hearing to protest plans to effectively increase the minimum amount of land required for a house lot on rural land from 3 to 20 acres.

In 1985, then-Councilwoman Elizabeth Bobo, now a state delegate, was quoted in The Baltimore Sun saying the proposal could prompt many farmers to rush into development to cash in before the law took effect. That concern also weighed on the minds of council members this week.

Bobo voted against the 20-acre proposal in 1985, which lost by a 4-1 vote of council members sitting as the Zoning Board. Three years later, though, when she was county executive, Bobo supported another try for 20-acre zoning. That bill was withdrawn by the sponsor, Councilwoman Ruth Keeton, under heavy opposition, Bobo said.

"The pressure built up and up and up," Bobo said. "The pressure was very intense from property owners."

Charlie Feaga, who was a councilman in 1988, said in an interview this week that the attempts to change zoning scared many farm families, including his own, into developing their land.

"It did more to destroy farming in Howard County than anything that ever took place," said Feaga, who still lives on the site of his old dairy farm, most of which is now a subdivision with 77 houses.

The county had about 54,000 acres of farmland in 1988. The total had since dropped about 46 percent to 29,371 in 2007, the most recent year for which figures are available.

The minimum lot size in the rural area did rise from 3 to 4.25 acres with little fuss in 1992, said planning director Marsha S. McLaughlin, but not again. In 2005, McLaughlin raised the prospect of 10 acres, but that was quickly shot down.

In the current dispute, council members said they weighed several factors, including how many house lots — and how many septic systems — would be eliminated. Several members were convinced that the administration bill was not protecting land and curbing septic systems.

For example, there are 419 lots that would be lost under the original "Tier IV" proposal. However, that number is cut by more than half by the number of lots that would be allowed for those land owners who took advantage of a provision in the state law allowing them to keep their development rights by applying for a septic "percolation" test before a July 1 deadline.

According to the Department of Planning and Zoning, owners of 12 properties applied to develop 253 lots. It's not clear how many of the lots could be built, as the percolation tests had not been done, nor is it possible to say whether the owners would follow through. But the potential was there to cut the number of lots barred under the original bill to 166.

"We're talking about 160 lots in the entirety of the whole county," Ball said. "Many would say that is not significant."

Council members also said they were struck by testimony from farmers who said they were considering developing their land now because of the threat of losing their right to do so. Absent that threat, many said, they would shelve their plans and continue farming.

"So if we could work out a way they would not be in Tier IV, they would continue to farm," Sigaty said. "The point is to keep the people who are farming even with lot rights. That was really the crux of it."

If some council members thought the amended bill better serves land preservation, one statewide organization devoted to saving rural land and fighting suburban sprawl does not agree, and is poised to drop Howard County's rating for its land preservation record.

Last month, 1000 Friends of Maryland published a color-coded map giving each county a land preservation grade — from the lowest, dark red, to the highest, dark green. Howard is the lightest of three shades of green, a reflection of its "very weak rural zoning," said Dru Schmidt-Perkins, the organization's executive director. Eight other counties are rated the same, six are better and eight are worse.

She said the county's rural lot-size rules constitute "zoning for rural sprawl development." The county earns a light green rating only because of its "robust ag preservation program," and will likely be dropped if the council vote stands, she said.

"Whether it's light red or dark red, we don't know," she said.

Bobo, who attributes her loss of the executive seat after one term in 1990 to the opposition of land developers, said the community does a fine job bringing political pressure. That's their right, she said, "but it's not balanced by equal fortitude by those who purport to support land preservation."

arthur.hirsch@baltsun.com

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