More Howard County farmers could soon find themselves applying for the county's agriculture preservation program if the County Council approves a land preservation package put forth by County Executive Ken Ulman.
Under the administration's plan that was presented to the County Council Monday, Jan. 28, the county would increase funding to the agriculture preservation program by at least $2.5 million a year to offer property owners impacted by a state required land preservation bill an opportunity to join.
Municipalities throughout the state are required to define growth tiers designating development levels 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.
Some farmers with no intentions of developing their land have argued that being placed in Tier IV will devalue their land to point where they must consider selling it for development before the county implements the law.
Farmers that have begun exploring the option of selling their land will be given more time to consider their options as part of the package to encourage preservation presented by the county administration.
Farmers who applied for grandfathering, which preserves their development rights, will be moved from Tier IV to Tier III under the administration's new proposal, allowing them more time to consider applying for the county's agriculture preservation program.
To expand participation in the program, up to $3.5 million from the general fund could be needed each year over the next 11 years if every property owner affected by Senate Bill 236 decides to apply for the program, according to Howard County Budget Director Ray Wacks.
If the County Council approves the funding, 3,800 acres would be eligible for preservation, but Howard County Director of Planning and Zoning Marsha McLaughlin said it is "highly unlikely" that all the properties would apply. .
The administration's proposal also would allow property owners to apply for preservation at any time instead of the current application process every two years, McLaughlin said.
Ulman and the council have gone back and forth over the last two months attempting to implement SB 236, passed by the General Assembly last year.
Ulman vetoed the council's proposed growth tiers map in December, saying it offered "less protection for the Chesapeake Bay and less protection for farmers."
Council members Calvin Ball, Mary Kay Sigaty and Jen Terrasa said Ulman's proposal was step in the right direction.
Ball said he was pleased to continue working with the administration on things both sides agree upon, including environmental sustainability, supporting farming in the county and preserving agriculture.
"I'm quite hopeful that we will be coming to a resolution on this issue in the near future," he said.
Council member Greg Fox, who has been critical of the administration's handling of implementing SB 236, said was "encouraged and distressed" with the county plan.
He said it's encouraging the county is reaching out to property owners looking for ways to sign them up for the preservation program. But it's distressing that the council seems content to leave some properties zoned rural conservation in Tier IV just two months after approving a map moving them to Tier III.
Fox also said taking millions of dollars from the general fund to supplement the preservation program "concerns me greatly.
"It's the administration buying their way out of a problem they've created," Fox said.
The council is scheduled to vote on Fox's proposed growth tiers map Monday, Feb. 4, which is similar to the map previously approved by the council. His map designates already preserved land and three other properties as Tier IV.
McLaughlin said her department plans to file legislation before the council's Monday meeting, which will allow the council to begin considering portions of the administration's proposal in February.
In addition to removing grandfathered properties zoned residential commercials from Tier IV and expanding the county's agricultural preservation program, the administration's package calls for:
• Strengthening provisions of the county right to farm law.
• Examining and revising zoning regulations to support and encourage the farm economy through the comprehensive zoning process.