Every so often, a rezoning request crops up on the agenda of the Carroll County Planning Commission that clearly defines the parameters of future development in the county.
The Belt Farm rezoning is one of these seminal cases that brings together so many different land use issues: impact of topography on the density of development, preservation of forest land and protection of the watershed.
It will be the benchmark against which future rezoning cases are measured. Its outcome will also indicate how Carroll officials will treat South Carroll's thousands of acres of conservation-zoned land.
The parcel, located off Route 26 off Bartholow Road, is about 205 acres of farm and forest that Carroll Development Associates would like to turn into a residential subdivision. The land immediately to the north and west of the parcel is the Linton Springs residential neighborhood. To the east and south are more farms and woods.
Rather than develop the land with its current zoning, which would permit about 100 houses, the developers want to build more.
The specific question in this case is whether to abandon the classification of conservation zoning in the county's general plan and replace it with zoning allowing for more dense development; it will be a bellwether for future decisions.
For developers, there is considerable incentive to purchase conservation-zoned land; it is cheaper than residential-zoned land.
In South Carroll, where there is intense development pressure due to the proximity to major roads such as Liberty Road and Interstates 70 and 795, much of the land available to developers is classified as conservation or agricultural.
Because much of South Carroll forms the watershed for Liberty and Piney Run reservoirs and the future Gills Falls Reservoir, the county's master plan calls for restricting development around these sources of drinking water. By keeping development around these reservoirs sparse, the county would limit the amount of sediment runoff and septic infiltration.
At present, about a third of Belt Farm is zoned R-40,000, which permits construction of one house per 40,000 square feet, which is about an acre. The remaining two-thirds is designated as conservation, which allows one house per three acres.
The developers want to triple the number of houses they could build.
Instead of the R-40,000 zoning on about 60 acres of the parcel, the developers want R-20,000 zoning, which allows two houses per acre. On another 80 acres, now zoned conservation, they also want R-20,000 zoning. The change would allow a six-fold increase in density.
Carroll Development Associates is arguing that the county made a "mistake" when it adopted the current zoning in 1977 as part of the Freedom Area comprehensive zone. The parcel was included in the public sewer and water areas, but providing those utilities to large lots, as called for in the zoning, is "economically not feasible," the developers contend.
Carroll Development says that the change in zoning would enable it to conform to the existing residential and industrial zoning that has been placed on land adjacent to its parcel.
Nearby neighbors have been up in arms since the development was announced last year. People living on Tanglewood and Ronsdale drives worry that their streets may become the major access routes for the hundreds of new houses. Other Linton Springs neighbors worry that the intersection of Linton Road and Route 26 will not be equipped to handle the large amount of traffic that the new development will generate.
Conservationists are concerned that the rezoning might bring dense development too close to streams that feed Morgan Run and make preservation of the existing woods much more difficult.
The critics concerned about the development's impact on the watershed point out that the topography of Belt Farm is not conducive to the dense development the developers desire. There are steep valley walls -- with grades of 15 to 25 percent -- leading down to streams that feed into Morgan Run.
To build on this land, massive amounts of grading will be required to level the hill tops and fill in the gullies and ravines. All this movement of dirt will destroy much of the trees and vegetation and generate large amounts of loose soil that will wash into the streams.
Saving the existing trees -- which include some exceptional white oaks, white pines, shingle oaks and apple -- will be more difficult with the dense development.
If the planning commission and, ultimately, the county commissioners agree to this rezoning request, they will be indicating that just about any land in South Carroll can be intensely developed regardless of topography or relationship to the watershed.
Conversely, rejecting this rezoning request would not necessarily mean that county officials are giving a thumbs-down on all development in South Carroll. The message should be that developers should not expect to build on steep wooded lands but should look for parcels with topographies more appropriate for intense development.
These distinctions are important. They will help to ensure that generations that follow us won't condemn these important land use decisions we make today.
Brian Sullam is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.