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Groups want Howard council to delay comprehensive zoning vote

As the July 25 deadline for a comprehensive zoning bill draws near, some Howard County residents are protesting that neither they nor the County Council have had enough time to evaluate the bill and its amendments.

Several local groups, including the Howard County Citizens Association and Citizens Working to Fix Howard County, held a rally Tuesday, July 16, in front of the George Howard building prior to a public hearing on amendments to the bill.

About 50 people turned out for the protest. Many of them later testified at the public hearing, many saying they are unhappy about proposals in the zoning bill and its amendments that would change the character of the county over the next decade without giving citizens sufficient opportunity for input.

Most of the protesters said they oppose proposed changes that would heavily regulate livestock owners who don't live on large farms. Dressed in green, they said the bill's new language would negatively impact landowners and the agricultural economy in the rural west.

Per the original revisions in the zoning bill, a property would need to be a minimum of 3 acres to be considered a farm. The property would also need to generate a defined amount of revenue.

An amendment proposed by the Department of Planning and Zoning in response to livestock owners' concerns would remove the requirement that a property generate income to be defined as a farm, although the 3-acre minimum is retained.

Marsha McLaughlin, the director of the Department of Planning and Zoning, and County Council member Courtney Watson addressed concerns about the zoning language during a public hearing on July 16.

"I think there has been a lot of confusion," McLaughlin said, adding, "By and large, the amendments that are in the zoning regulations that deal with farming aspects are being liberalized."

She said the Planning and Zoning Department had talked with the Farm Bureau and the Agricultural Land Preservation Board to address farmers' concerns.

But Susan Gray, a land-use attorney who says she has spent days reading through the comprehensive zoning documents and first raised concerns about the new farming regulations, said the changes made so far aren't sufficient.

"They are trying to make it exceedingly difficult to have livestock and small farming in the county," she said.

Watson promised that the council and Planning and Zoning Department would continue to look into the bill's wording.

"What happened here was not intentional," she said, adding she grew up around horses. "There was no ill will at all. We will make sure it gets fixed."  

Marcia and Ted Marshall, who own 1.57 acres in Highland and have three horses, said they were concerned the proposed regulations would make it more difficult to keep their horses.

The comprehensive zoning bill would allow one horse per acre on properties that are smaller than 3 acres. If the Marshalls wanted to own more than one horse, they would have to work with the Howard County Soil Conservation District to develop a soil and water conservation plan for their property.

Owning horses "is just a part of our life and our heart," Marcia Marshall said. Ted Marshall estimated he and Marcia had invested between $100,000 and $150,000 throughout the 30 years they have lived in Highland by purchasing hay and feed from local farmers and hiring local farriers, vets and animal dentists to care for their horses.

But, "such an aesthetic value in the county can't be bought or sold or put a price on," Marcia Marshall said. "We moved out here to have that and we just want it to continue."

Many of the protesters said they are concerned about measures they believe would change the landscape of the county. They said they need more time for discussion and consideration of the proposed changes.

"One needs to read a contract first before they sign it," said Stu Kohn, president of the Howard County Citizens Association, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that encourages county residents to participate in local government affairs.

The group also works on community initiatives, such as an effort to reduce crowding in Howard County General Hospital's emergency room by encouraging people with minor emergencies to go to private urgent care clinics instead.

The citizens association seeks to unite people who hold a wide variety of opinions, but the group overwhelmingly supports so called smart growth initiatives, according to Kohn.

Development "is OK with me, as long as the infrastructure is there," Kohn said. "And the infrastructure is not just roads. It's roads, schools, fire, police, sewage and landfill."

Protesters called on the council to delay any zoning decisions until the fall. Due to the 95-day life span of a bill, comprehensive zoning legislation, which was introduced June 3, would need to be passed by Sept. 5 or it dies.

Because the council is in summer recess for August, however, protesters said the council should let the bill die and re-introduce it in September.

"The council, they've put in a lot of hours. There is no question about it, they've got a very, very difficult job," Kohn said. "But they hold in their hands the future of our county. And it's our future that is most important."

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