Growth tiers

Lambert and Marjorie Cissel pose for a portrait on their 180-acre farm in Lisbon. The Cissels worry a new state law will force them to develop their land to avoid losing its value. (Brian Krista, Patuxent Publishing / December 6, 2012)

A County Council decision on controversial development legislation has some county farmers calling it a travesty, others praising it as a savior — and County Executive Ken Ulman pondering the first veto of a council bill in his six-year tenure.

The council voted 4-1 Monday, Dec. 3, to approve a growth tiers map designating development levels throughout the county, with Ellicott City Democrat Courtney Watson casting the lone dissenting vote.

In an interview the day after the vote, Ulman said the council's decision was unfortunate and his administration would use the rest of the week to contemplate its options.

"I cannot imagine signing the bill that passed last night," said Ulman, explaining that he favored a stronger bill protecting more property from development.

Ulman is expected to announce his decision on how to move forward next week.

The county is required to define growth tiers designating development levels under state legislation (SB 236) intended to limit the number of septic systems statewide to preserve the Chesapeake Bay. Levels range from Tier I, the most developed area with public services, to Tier IV, which is zoned for agriculture and conservation.

The map approved by the council designated parcels in western Howard County that are currently designated as priority preservation areas as Tier IV. Already developed residential parcels and uncommitted parcels that abut those parcels were designated as Tier III.

A map proposed by the Ulman administration designated properties zoned rural conservation as Tier IV with rural residential properties designated as Tier III.

While Ulman believes the county can do better than what was passed last night, council member Greg Fox, the council's lone Republican, said a veto by the county executive would demonstrate a disregard for property rights.

"It will only demonstrate his lack of understanding of the bill's impact on farming and further demonstrate again his total disregard for property rights," Fox said.

But Ulman noted that the Howard County Farm Bureau approved his administration's proposed tier map.

"The fact that the Howard County Farm Bureau strongly supported the bill introduced and is now strongly opposed is evidence that what the council passed last night is detrimental to the continuation of economically viable farming in Howard County," he said.

Farmers split

Howie Feaga, president of the Howard County Farm Bureau, denounced the council bill.

"I've never seen something as economically motivated for a few people," he said.

Feaga said farmers, like him, whose land is in a preservation program feel more land should have been designated as Tier IV instead of allowing development around properties already in preservation.

"It's just not what the bill wanted, it's not what the preservation farmers intended to have happen," he said.

The county farm bureau voted to recommend the administration's proposed map, but never had an opportunity to weigh in on the council's proposal, according to Feaga.

"We weren't given an opportunity to get on board with it because nobody presented it to us," he said.

But Lambert Cissel, owner of a 300-acre farm in Lisbon, said he was still celebrating the council's vote Tuesday morning.