12:17 PM EST, January 2, 2013
Howard County Executive Ken Ulman probably never expected the first veto of his six years in office to involve a land use bill, particularly one that he was compelled to seek by state law. But that's what happened, and between now and Monday it's up to his administration to pick up the pieces of what should have been a no-brainer — a local ordinance to preserve farmland and open space in the western end of the county.
First, a bit of history. Remember concern over septic systems and the health of the Chesapeake Bay? Gov. Martin O'Malley last spring convinced the Maryland General Assembly to pass a law to limit large rural developments that rely on septics, primarily for two reasons — the pollution these systems contribute to local waters and a desire to inspire "smart growth" goals of directing more development to towns and cities with waste water treatment systems, preserving more pristine tracts of land in the process.
Local governments protested this "intrusion" into their land use authority. As a result, what emerged from Annapolis was a flawed and watered-down version of what the governor had in mind. Yet its basic premise was still sound: Counties would classify their land into four categories, Tiers 1 to 4, with the top tier (4) assigned to land with the toughest controls on septics.
Mr. Ulman and his planning staff took the law to heart and submitted to the County Council a growth map that would set aside much of Western Howard County as Tier 4. That would mean no more than four lots on 17 acres of land.
But here's where the plan ran into trouble. Some of the farmers who owned this undeveloped land howled and ultimately persuaded four of five council members to substantially amend the maps. Mr. Ulman and leading environmental groups would say that "amend" is too kind a word for the gutting that actually took place.
Such opposition should have been expected. It's hardly shocking that growth limits are seen by some as devaluing land. After all, if a developer can build only four lots on land he could have built 10 lots on yesterday, hasn't he lost value? Even those farmers who plan to continue working the land might reasonably prefer to keep their (most profitable) options open.
It also didn't help that the state law came with a major loophole — an opportunity for landowners to be "grandfathered" out of development limits if they simply start the subdivision process before July 1, a step that requires no more than a soil percolation test. It was this flaw that apparently convinced some on the council that the Tier 4 designation would provoke a run on development.
Ultimately, the solution is likely going to require Mr. Ulman to sweeten the deal by augmenting land preservation programs that compensate farmers for development rights. That's not necessarily a bad outcome in this case, but the controversy might have been averted if the administration (and the environmental community) had educated the council on how best to preserve this land in the first place.
Easily lost in the political squabble is the fact that Howard County must protect the headwaters of the Patapsco and Patuxent rivers. The county may be landlocked, but its potential impact on the Chesapeake Bay is significant. Unless county officials play their part, there's little chance the bay and its tributaries can be adequately protected.
We think most who live in that county would agree. But politicians tend to respond to the squeaking wheels — particularly those, like homebuilders and developers, who finance their political campaigns — so growth controls are not easily achieved. Western Howard has enough "McMansions" to house its well-off residents without losing more farms to that cause.
If progressive Howard County can't draw the line on septic systems, who can? Local governments keep claiming that the state has no business in planning — and then, over and over again, their elected officials fail to stand behind new limits. Thanks to their lobbying, the state septic system law says that whatever map Howard County ultimately adopts, the state can "comment" on but can't veto or block. And that's true in every county.
Mr. Ulman appears to see the bigger picture (or at least not to want the political embarrassment of a veto override). Good for him and good for the bay.
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