Harford County's farmland preservation bill died a silent death last week as a divided county council declined to vote on the controversial measure that could shape land use into the next century. That was appropriate, given the belated opposition and reservations voiced by those who would be most affected, Harford's working farmers.
Despite the lamentations of the county executive, the Rural Plan will be resurrected in November and the council should then act on the amended bill. Aims of the plan are laudable, and the two years of molding the proposal were not wasted. The county Farm Bureau, a full participant in that process, admits that it must do a better job of explaining (and selling) the plan to its members.
The 45-day legal period for council action was too short, the gush of last-minute working sessions too hectic to reach a studied conclusion. One council member was absent for the final week's vote. One has to ask why the council president and the county executive were in such close accord on pushing the measure to a deadline vote.
The thorny issue of "development rights" of rural land needs to be better defined now, not in later discussions of implementation bills. Transfers of such rights, which are envisioned in the Rural Plan, involve more problems than simply selling such rights to the county or state. The Rural Plan would not force farmers to stay on the land if they don't want to; it aims to provide an option to selling the land for development.
The market ramifications of this system and the effects on county land values should be explored in greater detail. Serious questions remain about where the plan would redirect future development away from agrarian areas, and how much that would expand the defined development envelope.
Arguments that the plan entails options and voluntary participation and adequate compensation for farmland owners do not speak to the reality of restrictions on land use that will naturally flow from the legislation.
Harford County must retain its rural character, which is an amenity shared by farmer and suburbanite alike. It is a prime factor in attracting new residents and businesses. The Rural Plan shows that Harford has learned of the irreversible harm that can result from the unchecked conversion of farmland to development plots. Doing it right, with a maximum consensus of the community, is essential for a smooth implementation as part of the county's Master Plan for managing growth.