A state-imposed growth plan that could impact the pace of development in Howard County's agricultural areas and affect farmers' property rights is riling up county farmers and residents once again.
The county has struggled to adopt a system that is required by a 2012 state law intended to preserve farmland and the Chesapeake Bay. Under the system, counties must carve land into tiers that guide development patterns, from Tier I allowing for the most developed areas with public services, to Tier IV, which is zoned for agriculture and conservation.
In a 4-1 vote on Thursday night, the Planning Board rejected the county executive's plan to open for development 2,181 acres of land generally set aside for agricultural conservation. Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman seeks to amend the county's current tier map, which he says strips some farmers of their development rights by robbing them of what should be a voluntary choice to enter their land into the agriculture preservation program, which significantly devalues the land.
"We have forced people by the rule of law to be a farmer for the rest of their lives," Kittleman said. His plan shifts 49 properties from Tier IV to Tier III, allowing a maximum of 293 subdivision units.
Opponents said the change would create sprawl that could unsettle wide expanses of farmland in an effort to restore development rights that are already justly compensated through the county's agriculture preservation program and other options.
Former County Executive Ken Ulman vetoed the council's first tier plan in 2012, which strictly defined tiers based on whether land was zoned rural conservation or rural residential. Ulman followed with a compromise that allowed some farmers — who would have been forced to develop their land — a designation of Tier III. After months of debate, the council approved that map with a 4-1 vote.
"We passed the tiers to ensure that anyone who was impacted in Tier IV had access to the agricultural preservation program and could realize the pre-tier development value of their land," County Councilwoman Mary Kay Sigaty, of Columbia, said.
Sigaty said agriculture preservation ensures that farming is preserved as a "viable economic opportunity." Participation does not require the farmer to do the farming. "They can sell their farm for farming," she said.
Councilman Greg Fox, who represents the western county, said the county's current plan has already pushed many farmers to develop farmland quickly or push themselves into agriculture preservation.
"The genie is already out of the bottle," Fox said.
'Clash of cultures'
Cathy Hudson, the owner of Myrtle Woods Farm, in Elkridge, said sprinkling pockets of subdivisions on farmland will result in an inevitable "clash of cultures" between neighbors and farmers.
"Farming doesn't always smell good and look good," said Hudson, 62. "The more neighbors you have the harder it is to do agriculture."
Portions of the county have struggled to address residents' complaints about mulch processing on farms and other agriculture-related tasks.
"We don't need more neighbors against us," said Howie Feaga, of Ellicott City, who personally opposes the amendment. Feaga, who is president of the Howard County Farm Bureau, said the bureuau supports the proposal because it addresses property values.
Development, even if limited to 293 units, could fragment farming in the western county, said Brenda Stewart, of Woodbine, who has lived on a farm for 42 years.
"As soon as agricultural land is fragmented, it never comes back," Stewart said.
"We have 30,000 acres already preserved. This idea about putting a few thousand acres in develop is a drop in the bucket. It won't affect anything," said Ted Mariani, owner of Oakdale, in Woodbine.
Critics said the plan conflicts with the state law's commitment to protect the Chesapeake Bay, resulting in harmful runoff to streams that feed the bay.
"We should be moving forward, not moving back … our rivers can't take that anymore," said Erik Fisher, speaking on behalf of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, which is dedicated to maintaining the health of the bay.
Citing the limited scope of the potential development, Kittleman dismissed environmental concerns.
"Anyone who comes and tells you this is going to be a terrible thing for the environment just does not make sense," Kittleman said.
While the environmental impact may not seem significant at face-value, every impact counts on the waters that are sensitive to pollution, opponents said.
"That's the attitude that has gotten us to today," Sigaty said.