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Howard Planning Board approves minor expansion to agricultural preservation program

Howard County's Planning Board voted Thursday to approve a zoning amendment allowing a minor expansion of the county's Agricultural Land Preservation easement program.

The amendment, ZRA 152, was proposed by Howard planning and zoning director Marsha McLaughlin after she received a request from a property owner who wanted to join the county's agricultural preservation program but whose lot was a bit different from the normal preservation easement candidate.

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All agricultural preservation properties in the county are currently zoned rural residential or rural conservation, districts which encourage preservation of farmland with only light residential development in between.

The property in question, a 51-acre lot that borders the Patapsco Valley State Park near Woodstock, has the unusual quality of being split-zoned: part of it is pegged for rural residential use, while the other has residential: environmental development zoning [R: ED], a category that allows for slightly higher development density while encouraging open space and preservation of historic and environmental resources.

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McLaughlin said there's nothing that prohibits the property, and other farm properties in the east on land served by public water and sewer, from being incorporated into the agricultural land preservation program. But, "we haven't had one that's gone in like this before," she said.

Bob Lalush, a county planner, called the zoning amendment "really quite basic."

"The zoning regulations that are related to agricultural land preservation properties were written specifically for rural conservation and rural residential [properties] and, therefore, currently the R: ED regulations do not contain any references to agricultural preservation properties or what you're allowed to do with them," he told the Planning Board.

The amendment, Lalush said, would essentially copy the rules for preserved farmland in rural districts into the regulations governing the R: EDdistrict.

It would allow the owner of a split-zoned or R:ED lot to benefit from an additional carrot that already applies to rural-zoned properties eligible to become preservation easements. Preserved properties that are larger than 50 acres are allowed to retain one buildable lot, which adds value to the property even after its other development rights have been retired.

A technical staff report prepared by the planning and zoning department notes that the amendment could enable future preservation easements on similar properties in the east, such as the 220-acre Gould farm in North Laurel.

But McLaughlin said it was unlikely to lead to a lot of preserved parcels in the east.

"It's kind of nerdy, technical, and I don't think it has a lot of ramifications," she said.

In his vote supporting the amendment, Planning Board member Josh Tzuker said the same: "This is absolutely a unique property, so it makes complete sense to do it this way, and it is for the benefit of the overall program."

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