After months of spirited and sometimes contentious debate, the Howard County Council Monday night voted 4-1 to approve land preservation legislation supported by the county administration that designates growth tiers required by state law.
The council also narrowly approved the controversial Community Enhancement Floating (CEF) zone and unanimously denied the Mullinix brothers' request to terminate Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Foundation easements during the two-hour session.
Howard County Executive Ken Ulman and the council have grappled over the past two months on how to implement a state law aimed at preserving farmland and the Chesapeake Bay. Municipalities throughout the state are required to define growth tiers designating development levels ranging from Tier I, the most developed area with public services, to Tier IV, which is zoned for agriculture and conservation.
Ulman vetoed the council's first plan on Dec. 12. The county administration then proposed a compromise that allows farmers — who have been forced to consider developing their farmland as a result of the statewide bill — a designation of Tier III. It is intended to give farmers more time to consider entering the county's agricultural preservation program instead of selling their land for development.
The administration also is proposing to move up to $3.5 million from the general fund to expand its preservation program, allowing more farmers to participate.
The council's action Monday only approved a growth tiers map. It still must deliberate on additional land preservation legislation that is part of the compromise before a vote is taken March 5.
The map approved by the council designates properties zoned rural residential as Tier III and properties zoned rural conservation as Tier IV, except for those who have "grandfathered" their property and thus preserved their development rights.
The council chose this solution over a bill proposed by council member Greg Fox, which was similar to the original map approved by the council in December. The council's map had only assigned parcels in western Howard County that are currently preserved or designated as priority preservation areas as Tier IV.
During the months-long debate, some farmers argued that being placed in Tier IV would devalue their land to the point where they had no choice but to sell it for development. Some farmers said they had already spent nearly $100,000 in "grandfathering" their property to move forward with a percolation test, which is done before a septic tank can be installed.
Marsha McLaughlin, the county's Director of Planning and Zoning, said the map approved Monday is an improvement over the original because it allows farmers more time to consider their options.
"We think that this is a much better map because it reflects the nuances and differences rather than relying strictly on the two zoning categories," she said.
The county's original proposed map designated land zoned rural conservation as Tier IV and land zoned rural residential as Tier III.
Fox, in his sixth year and council's lone Republican, cast the only vote against the new map and said it was one of his "saddest days" as a council member.
He argued that the administration's bill strips property owners of their rights.
"It doesn't just sadden me, it sickens me," he said before voting no on the administration's map.
Council member Calvin Ball said the compromise is a "bold and comprehensive" package for land preservation in the county.
"This is a package that should address just about everybody's concerns," he said.
Council member Mary Kay Sigaty said she supports the intent of the state bill, but was "very angry" at the state for its inability to see the uniqueness of different jurisdictions.
"One size does not fit all," she said.
Council member Courtney Watson, who cast the lone vote against the council's original map, said passing Fox's proposed map would have subjected the county and its farm owners to consequences from the state.
She said what has become lost in this discussion is that passing a map is required by the state.
"Whether we like it or not, we are not an independent country from the state of Maryland and there is authority over Howard County," she said.
If the council had not passed a map, all major subdivisions involving septic would be halted until a map was approved.
Republican Sen. Allan Kittleman took to Twitter and Facebook late Monday saying it was a "very sad day" for the county as the council "votes to take away farmers' property rights."
Kittleman said the state does not have the ability or the authority to punish a municipality for submitting a map the state does not approve of.
"They (County Council) cannot blame the state," Kittleman said when reached by telephone. "There are no plans to punish anyone."
Controversial zoning approved
The Community Enhancement Floating (CEF) zone, along with its 14 amendments, was passed 3-2, with Fox and Watson voting against.
Proposed by the county's Department of Planning and Zoning, the CEF district is intended to allow property owners more flexibility in developing property by allowing zoning changes for parcels of land as small as two acres in some areas of the county.
Since the floating zone was proposed in November, county residents have testified that it gives developers too much freedom to develop small pieces of land while limiting the community's ability to appeal those plans.
Amendments to the bill include setting the minimum lot size to five acres, unless it has frontage to Route 1 or Route 40, in which the minimum lot size would be two acres, limiting building heights to five stories, and adding an additional zoning board meeting for public input.
Fox and Watson said they voted against the bill because it was not the appropriate time to approve this new zoning with comprehensive rezoning right around the corner.
Sigaty said the new zoning could be beneficial to the council during comprehensive rezoning and if the CEF zoning needs to be reexamined as the council moves through the rezoning process, they have the opportunity to do that.
"I think that having this in place is a potential advantage," she said.
Council denies Mullinix brothers
The council voted unanimously to deny the Mullinix brothers application to terminate easements with the Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Foundation (MALPF) on three properties totaling 479 acres.
Mark, Michael and Steve Mullinix, fifth-generation Howard County farmers, were seeking to become the first farmers in the state to be granted termination of their easement with MALPF.
The brothers have argued that farming is no longer profitable on their farms, but the Howard County Agricultural Land Preservation Board recommended the council deny the Mullinix brothers' application based upon a set of criteria for farmers seeking termination.
The county criteria, established in 2007, includes considering the effect of termination on county preservation, growth management and agricultural economic development policies, along with the effect on surrounding properties and an evaluation of how valuable the property is.
The preservation board ruled in November that the Mullinix application did not meet any of the criteria, and the council agreed Monday night.
The Mullinix application will now go before the state preservation foundation for a final decision.