Having Your Acres, Reaping Them, Too


Suburban sprawl or community clustering?

Far-flung farmettes or circumscribed subdivisions?

Those are the choices posed by legislation now before the Harford County Council, the latest segment of the comprehensive Rural Plan that is designed to reduce the loss of the county's farmland to development. Two measures aim at permitting landowners to cluster housing on rural spreads, while preserving the larger portion of the fields for agricultural activities.

In one bill, the septic-field reserve would be reduced from 40,000 square feet to 10,000 square feet, allowing for building homes closer together.

In the other, houses could be built in clusters instead of being spread out one for every 10 acres, under current agricultural land zoning code. As with the septic field proposal, that would help to prevent the sprawl of dwellings and of services, as well as the conversion of farmland.

No more than one home per 10 acres would be allowed on the farmland, but those homes could be built together, reserving the remainder as a permanent agricultural easement that could be productively farmed.

It would be easier, cheaper to build the clustered houses, and the farmer could keep most of her land, while selling off the maximum development rights for the parcel. Having your acres and reaping it, too, as one wag put it. Farmers would continue to be taxed at the lower agricultural rate for their remaining property that was undeveloped.

The county would avoid the sprawl that eventually demands more expensive public services, such as roads and public safety. Mail routes and trash collection routes would presumably be shortened, etc.

Buyers of these homes would get a country setting without the responsibility of maintaining 10 acres; a three-quarters-acre lot would be the minimum homesite. Clustering would preserve the farmer's land as a sort of pastoral commons of the community, although he would own it.

Yet with all these advantages, the idea still does not sit well with farmers who own the lands in question. By agreeing to this cluster-housing option, they would give up the development rights to the rest of the parcel forever. An agricultural easement would be created on the farmland in perpetuity, with virtually no chance for a future rezoning or exemption to allow more development.

Never mind that these rural landowners could not build any more houses under current law and zoning. They are hesitant about cutting off possible future options.

"What right do we have to decide the use of the land 50, 75 or 100 years from now?" asked Lee McDaniel, president of the Harford County Farm Bureau.

What right, indeed? Don't bother to put aside parks and streams and wetlands for future generations. Keep all development rights fluid, open to later exemptions and political persuasion. Nothing is forever.

Obviously, that kind of argument should not carry the day.

Farmland is considered an amenity in Harford County, a privately owned open space. While the nuisances of agricultural production are not inconsiderable, this bucolic use of the land is considered beneficial to the community as a whole.

That's the basis of the Rural Plan, and the reason why the county and state pay rural landowners $2,000 an acre or more for permanent easements to keep the land from being developed. By the end of this year, the county and state will have paid for easements on 15,000 acres of Harford farmland -- all from voluntary offers by farmers who wanted to sell their development rights while continuing to farm.

Regardless of what farmers would wish, the county is not going to rezone ag land for tract housing and create instant multi-millionaires. The land is zoned for farming and taxes are set for farming use. There's an adopted plan to preserve it as such. This is not just development land in waiting.

The legislation to facilitate cluster housing on ag land is aimed at helping farmers who grumble that they can't sell the land that is their only asset. They could sell a piece of it for housing and pocket the money, keep the rest in farming. The measure doesn't create any more development rights than currently exist; neither does it reduce the number of those rights.

Nobody has to use the cluster plan. A house can still be built on every 10 acres of agricultural zoned land in Harford. That might be what some farmland owners would choose to do in any case. They don't lose anything by these bills. But the county would lose the amenity of farmland if farms are cut up for housing to meet current zoning density standards.

To encourage farmers further to use the clustering measure, Councilman Robert S. Wagner proposes a tax credit on the developed portion of the farmland. The credit would have to be authorized by the state General Assembly and then enacted by Harford. That might be too much of an incentive for rural development.

The county administration and council will have to tread a fine line in deciding just how attractive to make these housing development alternatives for rural landowners. The purpose should not be to stimulate wholesale conversion of fields into housing, but to restrain the trend. And if rural development is to occur, minimize its impact on the landscape. That is what the clustering legislation aims to do.

Mike Burns is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Harford County.

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