BEL AIR -- The Harford County Council began debate last night on a controversial transfer-of-development-rights bill that supporters argue would give the county another growth-management tool and critics claim would lead to more sprawl.
The Rev. Jeffrey D. Wilson, County Council president, has introduced legislation that would allow rural landowners to sell their development rights for use in areas just outside the county's designated Route 24 development corridor.
Mr. Wilson envisions the establishment of country-style villages, close to existing water and sewer systems, which he says would protect the county's agricultural heritage by keeping development out of rural areas.
"This bill is a growth management tool," Mr. Wilson said. "If enacted, it will be the first growth development concept since the development envelope. We need to have more tools in the box."
Three other counties in Maryland -- Montgomery, Calvert and Queen Anne's -- have programs on the transfer of development rights to help control growth in rural areas.
But Mr. Wilson's bill is strongly opposed by outgoing County Executive Habern W. Freeman Jr., who said Mr. Wilson's legislation "could destroy everything we've worked for to control growth within the Route 24 envelope."
Mr. Freeman said the county was already facing long-term problems in expanding its facilities -- including water, sewers and roads -- to keep pace with development inside the Route 24 corridor without having to contend with even more growth outside of it.
"I don't have any problems with a transfer of development rights, as long as the rights are transferred into an area where we have adequate public facilities," said Mr. Freeman. "The problem is reaching outside the development envelope."
The bill has drawn mixed reviews from developers, farmers and real estate executives, as well as County Council members. But it has generated widespread interest because at least 40,000 acres outside the Route 24 corridor are zoned for development.
"You can't act like an ostrich and pretend that the problem doesn't exist," said Councilwoman Barbara A. Risacher, D-District A. "You can try to do something about it. I'm interested in looking at ways to do something about it."
Mr. Wilson said the bill was at least 18 months away from readiness for passage. The council needs time to craft an effective mechanism for transferring development rights from one part of the county to another, he said.
Mr. Wilson, who faces a tough election race next month against Councilman Frederick J. Hatem, D-District F, said the bill would be part of his approach to controlling growth, which would include a proposed new adequate public facilities bill.