Growth tiers draw frustration, praise, threat of veto

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.

"They just saved me my farming career and saved me millions of dollars," he said.

Cissel has been an outspoken critic of the state bill, claiming that it would have put him out of business if his property were designated as Tier IV, thus eliminating his development rights and cutting the value of his land in half.

The bill did allow farmers to apply to be grandfathered to preserve their development rights by July 1, but Cissel said starting down that path this summer may have cost him $90,000 for preliminary studies on his property.

"In farming that's a hard pill to swallow," he said.

Cissel said he's unsure if he will be repaid that money now that his land will be in Tier III.

By having farmers such as Cissel pull out of the grandfathering process, Fox estimates the county has the potential to save about 1,200 acres from potential development caused by SB 236.

"Right there gives you a pretty good idea of the importance of what we're doing," Fox said.

Council member Calvin Ball said the council's decision "respects and celebrates" the county's longstanding commitment to agriculture preservation while following SB 236 which allows each jurisdiction to create its own map.

"I think that we balanced the interest of our constituents in accordance with SB 236 and created a map that was Howard Count-specific," he said.

Watson said she voted against the proposed map for two reasons.

She believes the council unfairly treated three properties in its tier designations and that the administration's map was better from the "environmental perspective."

The Sisters of Bon Secours and Franciscan Friars properties, in Ellicott City, and the University of Maryland Farm, in Clarksville, should have been Tier III instead of Tier IV, Watson said, because they are unpreserved parcels.

Those three properties were designated as Tier IV in both the administration's map and the map approved by the council. Watson questioned why the council took unpreserved farmland out of Tier IV while leaving these three properties in Tier IV for its map.

"I just felt the logic they used on those three parcels was arbitrary," Watson said.

New zone on hold

In other action Monday:

• The council unanimously voted to table the proposed Community Enhancement Floating (CEF) District intended to allow property owners more flexibility in developing property by allowing zoning changes for parcels of land as small as five acres.

• The council unanimously approved amending the county zoning regulations to allow commercial solar facilities as a conditional use in the rural conservation and rural residential zoning districts. Fox, who works for Constellation Energy, abstained from the vote.

Bith Energy, a Baltimore-based energy engineering and technical services consulting firm, has asked for the amendment allowing them to build a 50- to 60-acre solar farm on Nixon's Farm in West Friendship. Once completed, Nixon's Farm will become the first county farm to generate solar electricity sold directly to an energy company.

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