Commissioners OK revision of zoning law


The Carroll commissioners approved yesterday the county planning commission's revision of a controversial zoning law that critics say will add thousands of homes to the county's rural land.

The commissioners will schedule a public hearing on the law. This signals the probable end in late March or early April of a six-month discussion about potential changes to the law, passed in September.

Gone under the revised law would be several provisions that critics say will prompt a rise in development across the county's rural land.

The only change recommended by the planning commission would eliminate a 1.75-acre ceiling on the average size of lots in clustered subdivisions developed under the law. The commissioners debated that change, with Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge arguing that the 1.75-acre requirement should remain in place to formally prevent subdivisions from eating away significant tracts of farmland.

But Commissioners Donald I. Dell and Robin Bartlett Frazier ultimately agreed with the planning commission that the specific limit would make the law an inflexible tool that might cost some landowners their fair shares of lots.

The law's current wording creates the potential for more development by changing the method for calculating the number of residential lots available on land zoned for conservation. It also allows landowners to transfer the rights for those lots to land zoned for agricultural use.

The law prompted anger from many Carroll residents and from state planning officials, who threatened to decertify Carroll's farmland preservation program if the law wasn't revised or repealed.

Under the revised law, however, the method for calculating the number of residential lots available on conservation land would revert to the way it was before September. Landowners would be afforded only as many lots as they could demonstrably carve from conservation land in plots of at least 3 acres or more.

The law would still allow landowners to cluster their available lots at a minimum size of 1 acre each and spread those clusters across zoning lines.

Though the revised law is a stab at compromise for the commissioners, Gouge seemed uncomfortable yesterday with the elimination of the 1.75-acre ceiling.

"If we're going to take away all the safeguards, we need to just repeal this thing and be done with it," she said.

The proposed revision would put a heavy burden on planning officials to prevent individual builders from flouting rural development guidelines. The guidelines would say that when clustering homes, developers should keep individual lots as close to 1 acre each as possible. But Gouge said a specific limit on average size should be in place to solidify the guidelines.

That would have the unfortunate effect of discouraging clustering in some special cases, however, planning commission members and land-rights advocates argued. The commissioners could change their minds on aspects of the law after hearing public comments on the proposed revisions. They probably will vote on a final version 10 days after the hearing.

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