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County farmers decry growth tiers legislation

By Blair Ames, bames@tribune.com

10:29 AM EST, November 20, 2012

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Farm tractors could be found circling the parking lot at the county government building in Ellicott City Monday night, Nov. 19, sporting signs reading "Devaluing farms threatens farming" and "Septic bill 236 belongs in a manure spreader."

Local farmers and their supporters flooded the county government offices for a public hearing on a county proposal to conform with state law that would limit the development rights of farmers.

Combined with supporters of anti-bullying legislation and detractors of a new zoning regulation, the Banneker Room nearly reached its 250-person capacity during the six-and-a-half hour hearing.

Twenty-five residents spoke on the topic of Senate Bill 236, which requires the county to designate land as one of four "Growth Tiers" by Dec. 31. Tiers represent development levels throughout the county ranging from Tier 1, which is the most developed with public services, to Tier IV, which is zoned for agriculture and conservation.

County farmers have argued that designating their property Tier IV will eliminate much of the land's value because they no longer would have the option of selling it for development.

James Brickell, a Sykesville resident, said he and his wife used to envy his neighbors across Route 32 for having the option of selling the development rights of their property.

But if the council approves a proposal to designate that portion of the county Tier IV, Brickell's neighbors will no longer have that option, while he will be under the Tier III designation.

"Now that I see the effects of SB 236 on Howard County landowners in Tier IV, we are happy we are in Tier III," he said.

The majority of residents who testified were opposed to SB 236, arguing it does nothing to save the Chesapeake Bay while rushing the county to make a decision and devaluing farmland.

Marge Cissel, owner of the Kimberly Turf Farm in Woodbine along with her husband Lambert, called SB 236 "immoral" and "unconscionable."

"I am angry with the state, not with you because you've been very good to farmers," Cissel said to the County Council.

Floating zone district

Even though they were forced to wait until after 11:30 p.m., more than 20 residents stayed to speak on the Community Enhancement Floating (CEF) District.

The CEF district is intended to allow property owners more flexibility in developing property by allowing zoning changes for parcels of land as small as two acres in the county.

Use of the zoning district, would only be allowed in residential zones served by public water and sewer, which eliminates about 60 percent of the county, according to Marsha McLaughlin, the county's director of planning and zoning, whose department proposed the new zoning district.

But residents argued Monday that the regulation is piecemeal zoning that is too ambiguous and generic, and gives too much power to developers.

"The public has been lulled to sleep by the long general plan process, yet many in Howard County have been awake and can see that this bill will further erode public input in the right to referendum and petition a plan for CEF zoning," said Howard Johnson, president of the Greater Elkridge Community Association.

Columbia resident Joan Lancos was the lone speaker to voice support for the CEF zoning, arguing that a lot of misinformation has been spread in the public about the use of the zoning.

"There will be no rush to do this development, it's not going to happen everywhere," she said. "This does not change the way zoning will be done in Howard County."

Anti-bullying legislation

Councilwoman Courtney Watson's anti-bullying legislation attracted 16 speakers to Monday's public hearing, most voicing strong support for the bill.

The proposed legislation asks the General Assembly to consider providing resources to establish a multidisciplinary team in each jurisdiction consisting of school personnel, representatives from law enforcement, the state's attorney and the appropriate mental health agency.

This team would be charged with helping to bolster the bullying prevention efforts of the school system and to develop standard protocols for the investigation of bullying incidents, care of those victimized, and education and remediation for young people participating in bullying.

Frank Aquino, vice chairman of the Howard County school board, said he was supporting the proposal because it recognizes that bullying is a community issue and not just up to the school systems across the state to solve.

"It recognizes that additional resources are necessary to address the problem," he said.