By Arthur Hirsch, The Baltimore Sun
11:22 PM EST, December 6, 2012
This Howard County movie has played before: the County Council considering laws to restrict rural land development, farmers staging a tractor parade protesting what they see as an attack on their property values, public officials saying preservation efforts would only push landowners into the arms of developers.
Scenes from farmland development fights of 1985 and 1988 have unfolded again lately, albeit with fewer tractors in the parade, fewer farmers in the dispute and about half as much farmland to argue about. The details are different and more complicated this time, as the County Council voted to adopt a land preservation plan required by state law, but in some respects, the outcome is familiar.
As in the 1980s, and in an effort seven years ago that didn't advance very far, an attempt to substantially restrict development rights in the rural western section of the county has just failed. The pattern is out of step with the county's otherwise progressive green reputation, and one Maryland organization devoted to preserving rural land is poised to put Howard in the same category with more conservative places such as Carroll and Cecil counties.
County Executive Ken Ulman, who points to Howard's record of spending hundreds of millions on farmland preservation and its distinction as Maryland's first county to establish its own preservation program, is not happy with the council's recent decision. By vote of 4-1 Monday, the panel rejected his administration's proposed land conservation and septic system control guidelines, adopting an amended measure that he said doesn't fulfill the purpose of the state law passed this year.
"I cannot imagine signing what the council passed," Ulman said in an interview a day after the vote was taken. The bill could pass without his signature, but he said he's considering a veto, something he has not done since he took office six years ago. He has until next Friday to decide whether to do that.
The difference between the administration's bill and the amended version is a question of what land is placed into the most restrictive of the four development categories established under a state law adopted this year. The law was meant to preserve rural land and slow the proliferation of septic systems to reduce nutrient pollution of the Chesapeake Bay.
In that most restrictive category set aside for conservation land, called "Tier IV," only minor subdivisions are allowed. In Howard County, that means up to four lots can be created in a subdivision regardless of property size. On 100 acres in that district, for instance, current rules would allow as many as 23 lots.
The administration's bill would have put all the land in the current "rural conservation" zone into "Tier IV." The amended bill puts into "Tier IV" only land that is already in agricultural preservation, plus three unpreserved but largely undeveloped properties.
Ulman argued that protecting land that is already in preservation "undermines the intention of the law," which was to expand rural land protection.
To overturn the bill, he would need at least one council member to reverse his or her vote, as the four votes cast for the legislation would be enough to override his veto. Councilwoman Courtney Watson was the lone vote against the amended bill, which was supported by Greg Fox, who represents the western part of the county, Calvin Ball, Jennifer Terrasa and Mary Kay Sigaty.
The four said they thought the amended bill better served the purpose of preserving land.
Ball also pointed out that the council mostly heard from opponents of the administration plan, although it was common knowledge for months that the council would be considering this legislation.
"Opponents 100 percent dominated," Ball said.
Even Ulman acknowledged that most of the public testimony before both the Planning Board and the County Council went against the administration, and supporters did not begin to emerge in greater numbers until late in the process.
"They didn't, nor did we, anticipate that the council would amend the bill so heavily," Ulman said.
Howie Feaga, president of the Howard County Farm Bureau, said his board backed the original bill but did not have time to meet again to consider the amendment before the council vote. Sigaty said she filed the amendment the Thursday before the council session.
As a result, Feaga said, the farmers who were happy about the original legislation that was before the council were not inclined to testify.
"Isn't it usually you don't hear much from people when they agree?" said Feaga, whose 101-acre Glenelg horse farm is in preservation. Among farmers, views on this issue tend to reflect the split between those who have sold their development rights for preservation and those who have not.
While the council decision does not change the development status of farms in preservation, Feaga said it could potentially allow their surroundings to change, opening the way to conflicts between farmers and neighbors in subdivisions. He and Ulman said farming works best when agricultural land is not broken up by residential neighborhoods.
Before a council hearing on the administration's plan in late November, six tractors circled the parking lot of the George Howard government building in Ellicott City for about an hour in a demonstration organized by Lambert Cissel, a veteran of the farmland development fights of the 1980s. His wife, Marge Cissel, was on a 1965 John Deere, the first tractor he ever bought, said Cissel, who with his wife co-owns Kimberthy Turf Farms in Lisbon.
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."
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