Undeveloped land awaits hard decisions

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Joseph W. Rutter Jr. knows all about the search for peace and quiet. That's what led his family to rural Howard County in 1954. But his boyhood home is now called Town Center, Columbia's downtown, and Mr. Rutter has moved to Woodbine in rural western Howard County.

It's very fitting then that Mr. Rutter, as the county's planning director, faces the difficult task of balancing the development and preservation pressures competing over Howard's rural west.

Western Howard's future hinges on choices among many residents' desires to preserve its rural character, farmers' fears of losing their properties' values to development restrictions and the insatiable hunger of urban and suburban migrants for rural land.

The choices are about some of the last and most valuable stretches of undeveloped land in the booming Baltimore-Washington corridor.

At stake are huge financial and political interests and the passions engendered by homesteads and agricultural life. One Howard official grappling with these issues in recent years -- a member of a rural land use commission -- even reported receiving a death threat.

But over the past four years, Mr. Rutter has overseen creation of rules for developing the west county, rules he believes will protect its rural character from the changes that swamped his boyhood home.

Howard's vociferous slow-growth advocates are hardly reassured, and many county officials readily acknowledge few guarantees still exist when it comes to protecting a particular plot of land from development.

Just ask Janice Bossart. The University of Maryland biology researcher believed that a small wooded lot behind her house on Pindell School Road between Fulton and Columbia could never be developed because it is less than 3 acres.

Then one day this winter, she discovered red plastic markers tied to some of its trees. The owner of the lot, she was told, had traded development rights with another parcel's owner to legally sidestep the 3-acre minimum for development.

"Any day now, they're going to be growing houses over there," says Ms. Bossart, 37, pointing to the lot and beyond. "I need the solitude and the spaciousness. I don't like people all around me."

Such unpleasant surprises spawned the candidacy of Susan B. Gray, a Democrat from Highland, for the county executive's office last fall. Running a slow-growth campaign, she lost by a 2-1 margin to the incumbent, pro-business Republican Charles I. Ecker.

But voters also approved a county charter change giving them veto power over most significant land-use decisions, perhaps Ms. Gray's chief goal. Passage of the measure, known as Question B, gives Howard voters control over the county's two major growth plans -- its 1990 General Plan and its comprehensive rezoning efforts.

Nearly all county officials believe this is a bad idea, one that will deter rational plans in favor of scattershot efforts that wouldn't be blocked by citizen vetoes.

Instead, Mr. Ecker and other county political leaders favor containing growth through a combination of limits on total housing construction, zoning restrictions and farmland preservation efforts.

County housing construction limits were outlined in Howard's 1992 Adequate Public Facilities Act, which restricted annual building to between 2,500 and 3,000 housing units countywide. It also delays for four years any new developments in elementary school districts with overcrowding already exceeding 20 percent.

Slow-growth activists such as Peter J. Oswald of Fulton have little faith that the act's growth limits will survive development pressures. He says there is nothing to stop future county leaders from throwing out the limits, which fall to 1,760 housing units by 2004.

County Council Chairman Charles C. Feaga acknowledges that could happen. But he foresees the area's birthrate dropping so much after the turn of the century -- and with it, demand for school space -- that there will be room enough for many more newcomers to western Howard.

The best way to preserve rural land from development, he believes, is to pay farmers enough that it encourages them to put their farms into the county's farmland preservation program.

The county's growth blueprint, its 1990 General Plan, calls for purchasing development rights for 30,000 acres of western Howard farmland, or about 70 percent of the county's remaining agricultural land. So far the county has purchased about half that.

Unprotected

But slow-growth advocates focus on the rural areas in western Howard that the county isn't protecting: 682 acres stretching between Marriottsville and Woodstock and 820 acres of farmland in Fulton. Both areas were designated "mixed use" in the 1990 plan.

In Marriottsville, a mini-Columbia named Waverly Woods II calls for almost 1,000 houses and apartments, 1 million square feet of commercial space, a central shopping center and a golf course -- much to the surprise of residents who moved to the area thinking it would remain zoned for just 3-acre lots. The same sort of shock arose in Fulton, designated as the the next major growth center along U.S. 29 and the site of another proposed community.

Both the Waverly and Fulton rezonings met with overwhelming community opposition, but were approved just as overwhelmingly by council members, who make up the Zoning Board. That's why slow-growth advocates sought greater citizen control through Question B.

But despite Question B's passage, the council isn't rolling over.

It already has refused to appoint Question B proponents to a Charter Review Commission looking at recommending changes to Howard's charter -- including possibly throwing out Question B. And it has passed a law putting Question B into effect that violates the measure by interpreting it too narrowly, the ballot question's supporters say.

Growth barriers

For rural western Howard's dwindling farmland, the continuing political acrimony over Question B ultimately may matter less than the growth barriers that Mr. Rutter, the county planning chief, is trying to erect.

One type of barrier consists of blocks of land that can't be developed because of the county's purchase of development rights in the form of agricultural easements -- through its farmland preservation program. "Every time we buy an agricultural easement, you throw another block in the way of development coming through," Mr. Rutter says. "We're not going to run the sewer line through that land."

The other type of barrier, created by zoning rules, accomplishes the same thing by forcing developers to set aside 32 contiguous acres of undeveloped land for every cluster of 10 1-acre homesites. The 32 acres are protected from development by perpetual easements. More than with the county's previous 3-acre zoning, this clustering encourages developers to put homes away from streams and closer to existing roads.

In such jurisdictions as Baltimore County, more restrictive zoning keeps rural land waiting for development as soon as the rules are changed. In Howard, the county has made it more likely that land will be developed, but in ways that will preserve more farmland, Mr. Rutter says. "Our mechanism . . . requires permanent preservation," he says. "There's no second chance [to] get a bite out of the apple."

Still, that's not much solace for west county residents who wake up one day to find new developments springing up by their parcels of rural tranquillity.

Ruined village

That's what happened to Shirley Geis, who's lived on Trotter Road in Clarksville since the 1950s. She's now watching it explode with growth because of Columbia's last and most western village, River Hill.

County officials promised Trotter Road residents a few years ago that their narrow, canopied, stream-valley road would be made into a dead-end lane to keep out River Hill's projected traffic. The county reneged and made it River Hill's main road.

"They have ruined a beautiful little rural village," Mrs. Geis says. "Both its traffic and its cars for sale, it's just an ugly abysmal mess."

Nearby, another longtime Trotter Road resident, Dave Connolly,

a 49-year-old electrical consultant, used to watch families of pheasants from his front yard. Now his view is of road construction crews making a huge interchange on Route 32 to serve River Hill.

He's a bit more forgiving than Mrs. Geis, though, acknowledging that he's looking forward in some ways to Columbia's brave new world of swimming pools and other amenities coming right to his doorstep. "In some ways," he says, "we end up with the best of both."

But then he looks out at the rumbling road equipment on Trotter Road, equipment bringing more traffic, noise, crime and pollution to his rural retreat, and says with a resigned shrug: "That's progress."

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