Ulman vetoes controversial land preservation bill; council weighs options

Ulman vetoes controversial land preservation bill; council weighs options
Lambert Cissel, a Lisbon farmer, expresses his dissatisfaction over County Executive Ken Ulman's decision to veto County Council legislation designating land preservation areas in the county. Ulman announced his decision to veto the bill at the Clark farm in Ellicott City on Dec. 13. (Staff photo by Sarah Pastrana)

Howard County Executive Ken Ulman Thursday vetoed County Council legislation designating land preservation areas in the county, saying the council's plan did not go far enough to preserve land.

It was the first veto of Ulman's six-year tenure as county executive and comes on a controversial piece of legislation required by state law.


Howard County is required to define growth tiers designating development levels under state legislation 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.

Ulman said he wants the council and other stakeholders, including county farmers, to work with him "on a better solution."

He added: "This is not the end, this is the beginning of a productive dialogue, which I will personally be very much active in."

The council voted 4-1 on Dec. 3 to approve a growth tiers map differing from the Ulman administration's proposal, which offered protection to more farmland. Council member Courtney Watson cast the lone dissenting vote.

The council can override an Ulman veto with the support of four of its five council members. The council has until its Jan. 7 legislative session to vote on overriding a veto, according to the county charter.

"Now the ball is in their court," Ulman said.

Ulman did not offer specifics as to how he and the council could compromise, but said the final growth tiers map should move closer to the one his administration proposed.

He announced the veto at Clark's Elioak Farm in Ellicott City, in front of farmers, state and county officials and media. The farm is the home of former state Sen. James Clark, the chief architect behind the Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Foundation.

"Howard County has been a leader in Maryland and across the country when it comes to environmental issues," said Alison Prost, Maryland Director of Chesapeake Bay Foundation. "I think this veto and this do-over opportunity is a way to show its leadership when it comes to land use."

County Council members were reluctant Thursday to say whether or not they would override Ulman's veto.

Council member Mary Kay Sigaty said it is Ulman's responsibility to present new ideas to council members after they spent the last few months listening to residents and devising their map.

"It's now his turn to present an idea or work collaboratively with us to come up with a solution," she said.

Sigaty said it was "too bad" that Ulman exercised his veto power.

"It's just unfortunate after all that work we find ourselves where we are," she said.


County Council member Calvin Ball said the council will make a decision soon if they intend to override the veto.

"We heard significant concerns about the administration's proposed map and worked on an alternative that we thought addressed those concerns. We chose what I saw as the better of two alternatives because the state had set a deadline of Dec. 31," Ball said. "That said, the issues of agricultural preservation and environmental sustainability in Howard County are bigger than any bill and I remain committed to both."

Greg Fox, the County Council's lone Republican who represents western Howard County, said he is unsure whether the council will move to override Ulman's veto.

"I'm willing to listen, however, I'm not going to do anything that takes away the rights of the farmers," Fox said. "In my opinion, his proposed plan did less for preservation than our plan did."

The map approved by the council designates parcels in western Howard County that are currently designated as priority preservation areas as Tier IV. Already developed residential parcels and uncommited parcels that abut those properties are designated as Tier III.

The Howard County Farm Bureau and the Howard County Chapter of the Home Builders Association of Maryland have each contacted Ulman expressing their support for the council's map.

A map proposed by the Ulman administration designates more land as Tier IV by naming properties zoned rural conservation as Tier IV with rural residential properties designated as Tier III.

Some county farmers have argued that designating their property Tier IV would eliminate much of their land's value because they would no longer have the option of selling it for development.

Lambert Cissel, a Lisbon farmer and outspoken critic of the administration's growth tier map, was one of a handful of farmers to hold signs Thursday in opposition of senate bill 236 at Ulman's announcement.

Cissel said after the announcement that Ulman must have assumed "the county council didn't have brains" in vetoing the legislation.

"I really do think it's all political," Cissel said.