Far beyond the edges of Harford County's designated growth areas, developers are quietly moving in on agricultural areas in the northern tier and developing residential communities next to farms committed to conservation, further straining a struggling agricultural community, say some farmers and officials.
The key to developers' success is capitalizing on a loosely worded county law allowing the transfer of development rights from one property to another - legislation written in the 1980s to help farmers keep their land while leveraging revenue from it.
Today, that law allows developers to hopscotch these rights from other areas, sometimes across land parcels too small to accommodate the development rights, and land them on properties abutting farms with conservation easements - a selling point for the developer but a potential nightmare for farmers who can become boxed in by houses and traffic as they try to keep their farms viable.
Farmers, preservationists and at least one County Council member call these hopscotched transfers a sizable misinterpretation of the spirit of the law. Lance C. Miller, who represents the northern tier, said last week that he plans to introduce emergency legislation at the council's meeting March 4 that will halt the transfer of development rights (TDR) program until the county can retool it.
"We have some specific critical situations right now," Miller said. "We've got to move on this quick."
Glenville farmer Lawrason Sayre said the influx of homes brings traffic on unimproved country roads and complaints about the necessary work of farming: running equipment at night or in the wee hours of the morning; animal sounds and smells; fertilizers, pesticides and other treatments.
"That's the threat to all of us now who have committed to the ag preservation program," he said. "With this encroachment, it makes it harder and harder to farm."
In Harford's agricultural-zoned areas, property owners have one development right per 10 acres, so if an owner has a 100-acre farm, he or she could build up to 10 houses on the property, planning officials say.
The TDR plan originated to help farmers who needed money but didn't want to build on their active farmland to sell development rights to a farm within 500 feet of the property.
Today, the going rate for development rights is anywhere from $40,000 to $60,000 apiece, more in some areas, said Moe Davenport, the Planning and Zoning Department's administrator for development review.
Developers are moving rights through several properties, which all are within 500 feet of each other - but the property where the rights originated and their destination may be a mile or farther apart, according to land records.
Some of these property owners who provide the pass-through privilege are also receiving thousands of dollars in return, farmers and some officials say.
"That was never the intent of the legislation," said Carol Deibel, a former Harford County planner who helped write the code.
Transfers of development rights were once rarely used, Davenport said. The department used to see about half a dozen cases using TDRs in a year; in the past two or three years, they've increased significantly, he said, though he declined to give specific numbers.
Development pressures and "out-of-the-roof" lot values have contributed to the increase, he said - as well as the fact that the county's law on TDRs is open-ended, so rights can be transferred anywhere in the county.
Many counties in Maryland, notably Montgomery and Howard, use TDRs as a growth-management tool. The idea is to pool development in concentrated areas rather than letting it sprawl across a county unchecked.
But those counties' programs have a key strength that Harford's lacks, Miller said: They designate areas where rights are sent from, and areas that may receive them. "We are one of the last counties not to have a strong TDR program," he said.
Dudley Campbell of the local engineering firm Campbell and Nolan Associates, a property owner who has used TDRs in a development project in the northern end of the county, said sending and receiving areas are needed so the county "can control the growth and send [TDRs] to places where growth can be accommodated."
When the planning department and community advisers worked together to create a TDR program in the early 1980s, the intent was for the county to refine the program to include sending and receiving areas, said Sayre, who served as a member of the planning advisory board then.
Deibel, who is director of planning and community development in Bel Air, said that when the legislation was drafted, "politically, at the time, it was not acceptable to develop sending and receiving areas."
That hasn't changed some 20 years later, say county planning officials.
But pressure from the agricultural community could alter that. Last week, a group of concerned farmers met to talk about TDRs and how to work as a group to change the system that is planting a hearty housing crop at their back door.
"We have to do something now because we have properties in Glenville that are under attack," said Henry Holloway, owner of Wilson's Mill farm.
Around Glenville and Old Level roads, a 50-home subdivision rolls across once-prime farmland. Glenville Farms LLC's tentative site plan for the old Briney Farm at the corner of the two roads, submitted to the Health Department for well tests, shows 12 homes planned on 3- to 13-acre parcels.
Farther up Glenville Road, nine transferred development rights have made it possible for businessman George Houzouris to put 15 homes on a parcel that would have originally allowed six.
Several neighbors, including Sayre, have hired an attorney to help them appeal the transfer, which they say violates the TDR law.
The rights in this case moved from a parcel, owned by Houzouris and Campbell, about 5,000 feet up Glenville Road. According to court records, on April 18, the nine rights were transferred from the pair's 86.473-acre property, across Glenville Road to Carolyn Fielder Smith's 49.574-acre property. She transferred them to the neighboring 45.7-acre property, owned by Clark and Deborah Turner, who then transferred the nine rights to a 2-acre neighboring property owned by Remegious and Barbara Przybylski. The Przybylskis transferred the rights to Houzouris' property on the east side of Glenville Road.
Campbell declined to disclose how much property owners were paid to pass rights through their property but added that the "majority wanted no money at all."
The 86-acre property where Campbell and Houzouris transferred the rights from has a preliminary site approval for three homes, Campbell said, adding that environmental features on the property - including deep woods and a stream - made development there untenable. Transferring the rights up the road just seemed like a "common-sense" decision, he said.
He pointed out that property developers have used TDRs in the same manner for two decades. "Now all of a sudden, why is it being questioned?" he asked.
But he added that the county should revisit the TDR issue and bring developers and the community together to try to craft a compromise.
"If I moved them somewhere else, would there be this same type of concern? I don't know," Campbell said, but added that the current law wouldn't allow transfer to another area of the county entirely.
"This is something Harford County should be looking at," he said.
Citizens for the Preservation of Agriculture, a grass-roots group of farmers with land in conservation programs, plans to meet at 7 p.m. March 6 at the Highland Community Center on Highland Road in Street. Information: 410-836-7023.