The Howard County Council Monday approved controversial legislation aimed at protecting rural land from development, but the vote may prompt County Executive Ken Ulman, who said the bill was not strong enough, to veto council legislation for the first time in his six-year tenure.
The council voted 4-1 to approve a growth tiers map designating development levels throughout the county, with council member Courtney Watson casting the lone dissenting vote.
The map assigned parcels in western Howard County that are currently preserved or designated as priority preservation areas as Tier IV while designating already developed residential parcels and uncommitted parcels that abut those parcels as Tier III.
Ulman described the council’s vote as “unfortunate” in a statement released shortly after the vote.
“While I respect the County Council’s intentions, it is unfortunate that they have chosen a path of less protection for the Chesapeake Bay and less protection for farmers," Ulman said in the statement. "I will keep fighting for a stronger solution that is in the best interests of Howard County citizens and future generation."
Ulman aide David Nitkin said the county executive "is not ruling out any of his options, and that includes a veto."
Once the legislation is formally introduced to Ulman, he will have 10 days to decide if he wants to veto it.
Watson said she voted against the legislation because of concerns with the rationale on Tier III and Tier IV, specifically three parcels designated as Tier IV that are not in preservation.
“It concerns me that we would give as a reason that we don’t want to put farmers who are unpreserved in Tier IV because we want to maintain their financial viability, but we wouldn’t apply that same standard to these unpreserved parcels that were placed in Tier IV,” she said.
Meanwhile, the Maryland Department of Planning had recommended against the bill, saying that more properties should be designated as Tier IV. In a letter to council member Mary Kay Sigaty, who proposed the new map, the department had asked the county to reconsider its proposed map and hold another public hearing on it.
Sigaty, said she was “truly disturbed” by the letter.
“They didn’t even wait to listen for what our justification was. I’m truly saddened that they jumped the gun so fast,” Sigaty said.
The county is required to define growth tiers designating development levels by state legislation intended to preserve the Chesapeake Bay. Levels range from Tier I, which is the most developed area with public services, to Tier IV, which is zoned for agriculture and conservation.
Some Howard 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.
The council also 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.
Some residents have complained that the proposed floating zone would give too much freedom to developers, while limiting the community’s ability to appeal.
Amendments to the regulation include stipulations requiring developers to hold a pre-submission community meeting and the planning board to hold a public meeting on the application.
Nixon solar farm
The council also 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. Council member Greg Fox abstained from the vote.
Bith Energy, a Baltimore-based energy engineering and technical services consulting farm, has asked for the amendment allowing them to build a 50- to 60-acre solar farm on Nixon’s Farm in West Friendship.
Nixon’s Farm, zoned rural conservation, hosts weddings, retreats, luncheons and parties.
While some residents were opposed to the regulation, saying it was too “open-ended” the Howard County Farm Bureau was on board with the proposal because it offered farmers another opportunity to make a profit through their property.
Once the project is completed, Nixon’s Farm will become the first county farm to generate solar electricity sold directly to an energy company.