Ulman seeks post-veto compromise on land rights

What a lovely spot for a veto.

Clark's Farm in Ellicott City spreads out on 540 acres along Route 108, where cattle roam the pastures and where Humpty Dumpty, Willie the Whale, Little Red Riding Hood and other characters from the old Enchanted Forest theme park have found second homes.


It's also the former home of the late state Sen. James Clark Jr., the father of Maryland's agricultural land preservation program.

County Executive Ken Ulman chose the location this month to spike a piece of County Council legislation dealing with development rights on rural property — such as Clark's Farm, which has been in preservation since the 1980s. He spoke before an audience of farmers, state and local officials and preservationists, his back to a pasture and a modest memorial stone to Clark and his wife, Lillian, inscribed with the motto, "Never Sell the Land."


Sitting at a desk near the white 19th-century farmhouse, he signed the first veto since he became county executive. He wasn't about to just do it in his office.

The question is: Now what?

Since the veto of the bill adopted on Dec. 3, Ulman said he's talked briefly with some council members he's run into at events but not held expansive discussions.

"I anticipate soon after the first of the year, we'll move ahead with a strategy" to find common ground, Ulman said last week, referring to himself and the council.

The council's vote had gone 4-1 for an amended bill — rather than the one proposed by the Department of Planning and Zoning and supported by the Democrat Ulman.

It was a bipartisan vote, with the council's only Republican, Greg Fox, joining Democrats Calvin Ball, Jennifer Terrasa and Mary Kay Sigaty in favor of the amended version. Courtney Watson voted against it.

But to make his veto stick, Ulman needs at least two votes when the council votes again on the issue on Jan. 7. The same 4-1 vote would override his veto; a 3-2 vote would not.

The panel must vote yes or no on the veto override that night and cannot table the issue, said Stephen LeGendre, council administrator.

"I'm willing to listen, but so far I haven't heard anything," said Fox regarding more dialogue on the bill. "The four of us that voted for it have not heard from the county executive."

Ball said he knows the executive is "hopeful he might be able to work with the council," but went no further. Terrasa and Sigaty declined to return phone messages seeking comment for this story.

The two sides are wrestling with competing approaches to land preservation. Those on each side argue that their way makes the most sense.

The argument is going on under the requirements of a state law adopted this year that's meant to curb the proliferation of septic systems and preserve rural land.


Under the law, counties need to designate areas for four different types of development, from the most intensely built areas served by public water and sewer services to rural conservation land under the tightest development restrictions.

The conservation district, called Tier IV, is where the state law says only "minor subdivisions" will be allowed. In Howard, that means four lots or fewer.

Ulman's bill would have designated as Tier IV the county's rural conservation zone, about 62,000 acres. If you own 100 acres there, under current zoning you could develop 23 lots, one for every 4.25 acres. Under Ulman's bill, you could develop four lots regardless of how big the property is.

Fewer lots, less value. The proposal created an uproar this fall.

Farmers claimed the county was stealing value they depend on as collateral for loans to keep their farms going, and for their retirement. Some protested by parading tractors outside government headquarters the night of a council hearing.

At Ulman's veto ceremony, farmer Lambert Cissel held aloft a sign that said the state law "belongs in a manure spreader."

Cissel, who with his wife, Marge, owns a 310-acre turf farm in the Lisbon area, was happy after the council vote that nixed Ulman's plan. Their land is not in preservation, meaning they still have the right to develop it for house lots.

"I was going to ask them if I could kiss them," he said after the council's vote.

The council bill changed the status quo very little. It designated as Tier IV only land already in preservation, plus three other properties totaling nearly 1,500 acres that are largely undeveloped, but still retain development rights. Those tracts are the University of Maryland research farm complex, the grounds of the Shrine of St. Anthony that includes a Franciscan friary, and the Retreat and Conference Center at Bon Secours.

Planning director Marsha S. McLaughlin warned that the council's amendment did not fulfill the intent of the state law, as it did not expand the amount of protected land. Ulman echoed her thoughts, and said he could not sign the bill.

While Howie Feaga, the president of the Howard County Farm Bureau, said he opposed the council's action, his organization voted to support it. Even Ulman acknowledged the weight of public opinion was opposed to his approach.

The administration's bill would have stopped development of 419 lots — but that doesn't account for 253 lots that could potentially be developed anyway under a so-called "grandfathering" provision. That would bring the total of lots barred by the Ulman plan down to 166 — which to some council members did not seem significant.

Now, Ulman said he's going back over the maps again, property by property, trying to see which are best for the rural development zone, or Tier III, and which are best suited for Tier IV.

He said he wonders if putting more money into the county's agricultural land preservation program could also be part of a compromise.

He's also keeping remarks collegial. At the veto ceremony, he said, "the tone I took was not to criticize, but to say, 'We have some work to do. … Let's hit the reset button.'"

Fox said he found the choice of the Clark farm "ironic," as the senator "was the father of the concept of buying development rights, not taking them."

He said he thought Ulman chose to make an event of the veto to make a statement for an audience beyond Howard County.

"He's running for statewide office," said Fox, referring to talk that Ulman is considering a gubernatorial bid. "I think he's thinking about this on a statewide basis, not what's good for Howard County."

Ulman said the event was meant to alert people to the issues. The setting made sense, he said, given the property's association with a preservation legacy.

"This is a very important issue to Howard County," said Ulman. He said he's confident he can get the votes to sustain his veto, but he's not mentioning names.

"I'm optimistic we'll be able to come together."

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