Easement plan to protect land wins farmers' favor now but not forever


A plan to help farmers and rural landowners sell their development rights while keeping their remaining land has won universal praise from farmers, developers, planners and politicians -- except for one thing: No one wants to give up their development rights forever.

Under a proposal discussed by the Harford County Council last week, landowners could sell development rights to a portion of their land, but development of the rest would be barred forever.

Legally, it's called an easement "in perpetuity."

"Perpetuity is forever," Councilwoman Veronica L. Chenowith said.

"None of us know what could or will happen 50, 60, 70 years from now. There may come a time when sewage and water facilities come close to the property.

"Then it might be better to develop that land rather than tearing up another piece of ground farther out," she said.

By adopting "in perpetuity" language, she said, "You might be tying a rock to your foot."

"We might ask," said Lee D. McDaniel, president of the Harford County Farm Bureau, "what right do we have to decide the use of the land 50, 75 or 100 years from now?"

Several members of the council seemed to wrestle with that question during their weekly meeting at which they held a public hearing on the bill. A vote on it may be taken Tuesday.

Council members asked the Rehrmann administration what could happen in 30 or more years.

"I think it's important to note that this is a voluntary program," said Arden C. Holdredge, Harford's director of planning and zoning.

Mike Paone, a county planner who worked on the legislation, said that "without the permanent ease ment, there's no guarantee that the property won't be developed in the future."

Technically, the legislation would offer an alternative to farmers or other owners of rural open space of 25 acres or more who want to develop their land, Mr. Paone said.

The law would apply only to land zoned for agricultural or rural residential use. Agricultural zoning currently allows one house for every 10 acres; rural residential, one house for every 2 acres.

As an example, Mr. Paone said, a farmer with 100 acres could legally break his land into 10 housing lots under the current rules.

If the new rules were adopted, the owner could cluster the 10 lots on a 20-acre portion of the farm, while keeping the remaining land open.

The goal is not to encourage development in rural areas, said Mr. Paone, but "to better control development that will happen anyway."

Mr. McDaniel of the Farm Bureau said all the farmers he had spoken with liked the idea of being able to cluster their development rights, but they wouldn't lock up the rest of their land forever.

With the permanent easement, he said, "we feel that the [development] option would only be an option on paper, and no one would take it."

Mr. Paone disagreed, saying the current regulations force many farmers and landowners to sell their entire farms. "There are a good many people out there who would love to sell their development rights, get fair market value, while still living on the property and possibly still farming," he said.

And who knows what the future will bring?

"You may look down the road 50 years," Mr. Paone said, "and it may be the greatest thing for Harford County to have these open parcels remaining."

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