New rules would ease pressure on western Howard farms

New rules would ease pressure on western Howard farms

As transplanted suburbanites increasingly began moving into homes next to long-established farmers in western Howard County, a clash of cultures accelerated there in the past decade. New residential neighbors brought setback requirements between farms and houses, forcing some farmers to limit future use of their land.

In an attempt to offer regulatory relief to farmers, Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman is now seeking to remove setback requirements that buffer new residences and farmland. The Howard County Council could vote on a bill backed by Kittleman in early April if it is pre-filed in late February, as planned.

Current requirements require 200-foot setbacks between animal shelters and residences, and buffers of between 100 and 200 feet for riding academies and stables. The proposed change would apply to future residences in the Rural Conservation district, which aims to preserve farmland, as well as farms 20 acres or larger in the Rural Residential district, which allows residential development in rural settings.

The change would not apply to lots already recorded and current residences that are not on farms.

Natalie Zeigler, owner and manager of Carroll Mill Farm in Ellicott City, said the change addresses a "basic unfairness" that affects farmers' ability to make a living.

"I don't know why we would have a situation where somebody new can move in and effectively suck up part of your property," Ziegler said.

Other farmers agreed and said the proposed change doesn't go far enough.

"The problem here is it's putting a dress on a pig," said Keith Ohlinger, a farmer from Woodbine.

Ohlinger uses a modern method of farming called rotational grazing, which often requires him to move his animals to make better use of his land. Because of setbacks, Ohlinger cannot set up an animal shelter at a natural spot where the animals cozy up behind a line of trees acting as a windbreak.

Howie Feaga, president of the Howard County Farm Bureau, said the exemption should be expanded to apply to farmers who entered their land in the agriculture preservation program, which preserves farmland at taxpayer expense.

"I would love to be able to support this," Feaga said.

Ricky Bauer, a full-time farmer in Dayton and vice chairman of the county's agricultural preservation board, said the presence of new residential neighbors effectively chips away at farmers' valuable acreage.

"No business can survive after giving away a portion of its business time after time," said Bauer, who supports the legislation but also wants it to go further.

Bauer's 125-acre property, which entered preservation in the 1990s, is surrounded by more than a dozen residences. Like other farmers, Bauer needs space to put up storage buildings toward the back of the property, but setbacks limit his choices of where to build.

"Farm owners sold their development rights and these rights only" when entering their land in the preservation program, Bauer said. "To survive, we have to become more economically efficient. We're using a whole lot of bigger equipment than 20 years ago to get the job done quicker and cheaper."

If passed by the County Council, the proposal would restore property rights to farmers after a state-enacted bill designed to protect the Chesapeake Bay required the county to place properties into categories with restrictions on development.

In early February, the planning board unanimously recommended the change and suggested expanding it to parcels in agricultural preservation, which is unlikely to occur.

County officials said requiring changes retroactively is unfair to owners of current residences, who made decisions based on regulations in place when they moved in.

"We are respecting those decisions," said Amy Gowan, deputy director of the county's Department of Planning and Zoning.

Deidre McCabe, the county's communications director, said Kittleman believes people moved into residential neighborhoods with the expectation farms would comply with existing setbacks, which led to the exemption of lots already recorded.

Kittleman is also seeking to deter nuisance lawsuits against farmers. Another bill he backs calls on the courts to require plaintiffs to cover legal costs during civil suits when the court determines the farming operation is not at fault.

The conflict between farmers and suburban neighbors is not unique to Howard County, said Val Lazdins, director of the county's Department of Planning and Zoning.

"This is the dialogue that I've been listening to for the last 30 years," Lazdins said.

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