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Judging from the testimony offered at a public hearing Thursday night on the administration's plan to comprehensively rezone western Howard County, the planning board has a lot of work to do before sending its recommendations to the zoning board.

Forty-six of the more than 300 people at the Glenelg hearing offered opinions about the plan. And even among those with common interests, no two views were identical.

Take for example, the farming community. James M. Sanborne, a Dayton resident who farms in Highland, and Mount Airy farmer Jay Tyson told similar stories about the problems of putting residences next to farms. But they drew opposite conclusions.

Sanborne says the one-house-per-three-acre zoning in effect in rural areas is "devastating to farming."

One neighbor sued Sanborne over his use of pesticide, he said, and another complained about low water in Sanborne's ponds. A third wanted Sanborne to remove his pine trees so the neighbor could see the ponds, he said.

Cluster zoning that would group homes onsmall parcels while leaving larger portions for rural, non-residential purposes would help avoid those problems, Sanborne said.

Tyson,who said his family has been farming in Howard for 150 years, disagrees. Tyson told the board a litany of horrors about rural-urban conflicts.

"When it comes time to spread the manure, these amicable creatures (who live nearby) become intolerable abominations of the highest magnitude," he said.

"At planting time, the farmer cranks his tractor at 5 a.m. In the fall, he runs his heaviest equipment all night to beat the weather. He is pulling his machinery down the road at 10 miles per hour and his neighbors want to go 55.

"Horsey people would ride through our freshly planted fields after a hard rain. Kids on their dirt bikes would ride right through the fields. Corn shocks would be set on fire. A farmer was recently beaten when he tried to run a group of teen-agers out of the barn in the middle of the night."

If farmers are allowed to cluster development on a portion of their farms, situations of the type he describes will only get worse, Tyson said. Farms will eventually disappear unless put into the farmland preservation program.

Farm Bureau President Martha Clark said clustering should be available only as an option, not mandatory as currently proposed. Clark opposed the idea of comprehensive rezoning of the west separate from comprehensive rezoning of the east, saying it could "create serious deficiencies or conflicts."

Like Tyson, she said the farmland preservation program "is and should be the primary mechanism for perpetual preservation of agricultural lands." Like Sanborne, she opposes "down zoning" or any other attempt to "devalue or reduce the equity in landowners' property."

"Those who move here and then want to shut the door are on shallow moral grounds," Sanborne said.

Most of the debate centered on whether to cluster or not to cluster. Those in favor of it said it would preserve more land. Thoseopposed to it said it could lead to failed septic systems and contaminated ground water. Some in favor of clustering said it should be based on net, rather than gross acreage as proposed.

The planning board will receive written testimony until Jan. 31, after which it willmake recommendations and send them to the zoning board for action. The zoning board is expected to conduct hearings on the proposal beginning in March.

Speakers Thursday were also divided about the administration's proposal to create a rural business district.

Debby Pappy of Clarksville said such zoning offers flexibility for the developer only and not for the community. She told the board she is concerned that the proposal does not specify a lot size.

"Structures can cover up to 30 percent of the land," she said. "Parking lots are not included. A village center in Columbia is 10 to 15 acres. Does this mean that the (rural business) district can be this large or larger?"

Despite differences of opinion, the four-hour hearing was marked by none of the rancor that accompanied a similar hearing in June when anti-cluster activists nearly hooted the rural land use commission off the stage for suggesting a change in zoning.

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