Council to view changes to plan


When Harford County's revised master land-use plan is resubmitted to the County Council on Tuesday it will no longer seek an end to the farm family conveyance program.

Farmers argued bitterly against the suggestion, saying that it would significantly reduce the equity in their land, money they counted on for their retirement.

A number of other revisions also are in the plan, according to council members, including a suggestion that the county pay for ambulance service, which is struggling to keep pace with rapid population growth.

And it suggests an expansion of the Ma and Pa Trail, popular with hikers and bikers, tighter controls on outdoor advertising and the beautification of roads.

But the change offered on conveyances, or development rights, heads the list of issues for farmers. Responding the strong farm-community protests, County Executive James M. Harkins has withdrawn the family conveyance provision of the plan, according to Republican Councilmen Lance C. Miller and Robert G. Cassilly.

Cassilly and Miller have been working together and with members of the administration in recent weeks on ways to address the problem of spreading urban development while protecting the financial interests of farmers and landowners. Miller represents the agricultural northern portion of the county. Cassilly represents Bel Air.

"That's great news," Candace Lohr, president of the Harford County Farm Bureau, said the administration's reversal of its previous plan to "sunset" the family farm conveyance.

Lohr said the proposal would have forced farmers to either use their conveyances in the next three years or lose them.

She said the family conveyance program stems from a zoning change in the county's agricultural district in the mid-1970s. The change limited farmers seeking to develop their land to one development right for each 10 acres owned. Previously, they were allowed to develop, or put a house on, a 3-acre parcel.

To help offset the decline in the value of their land, farmers were allowed to parcel out one lot to each of their children without losing development rights attached to their property.

Henry Holloway said a conveyance is worth $50,000 to $60,000. For the administration to take away the conveyances, he said, "would be like going to the bank and stealing $50,000 or $60,000 from the farmer."

Holloway is a county farmer and the owner of farm supply stores in Bel Air, Whiteford and Shawsville.

'A much better bill'

"We are looking at a much better bill," Miller said of the revised master plan. "There will be no sunset and no requirement for farmers to register their land conveyances" with the county.

The administration withdrew its proposed master plan from council consideration early last month when it was greeted by more than 70 amendments.

Miller said the new plan, which will set the guidelines for growth and development in the county for the next six years, also will endorse the concept of an agricultural district.

According to Cassilly, this would involve the designation of certain regions in the county where farming would be strongly protected and development that could hinder farming operations would be discouraged.

By keeping farmers in farming, he said, the hope is that the county would retain the critical mass needed to retain the infrastructure -- mills, tractor and parts stores and other businesses -- that is vital to farm operations.

Cluster development

Cassilly said the revised master plan would also encourage cluster development on farms.

Under this arrangement, he said, the owner of a 100-acre farm would have 10 development rights. By putting 10 homes on a small part of the farm and keeping the vast majority of the land in agriculture would provide for more open space that adds to the beauty of the county and the quality of life for its residents.

Cassilly said the challenge is to not force farmers into cluster development, but to find a way to encourage them to cluster.

One possibility, he said, would be to give farmers who cluster development in a small portion of their farms an extra development right.

He said the extra development right could be sold to a developer building a home in another part of the county. "This way there would be no cost to taxpayers," he said. "We could preserve agriculture land and maintain our open space without using taxpayers' money."

The administration said copies of the revised master plan would not be available to the public until it is introduced at the council meeting Tuesday evening.

Robert S. McCord, county attorney, said the plan is not an official document and could be subject to change up to the time it presented to the council.

Cassilly, who had copies of at least some of the proposed changes to the plan, said they cover a wide variety of issues.

He said the plan looks at the possibility of supplementing the county's volunteer fire department by having the county pay for at least part of its ambulance service.

The growth of the county and the increased number of ambulance calls are putting a strain on the county's emergency operation center, according to Cassilly. "The number of ambulance calls is killing them," he said.

Cassilly said the plan suggests that future housing development projects be "more kid-friendly," with increased space where kids can play.

Trail addition

For hikers, there is a suggestion for an addition that would link the two sections of the Ma and Pa Trail. "It would mean that kids on their bikes, or people walking, could travel seven or eight miles instead of the two three-mile sections we have now," Cassilly said. "I'm glad the county executive picked up on this."

He said the plan also looks at a need for new regulations on outdoor advertising or signs. He used the Wawa store in Hickory as an example of the need for change: "Because they have so much road frontage, they were able to put up three enormous signs. It looks like hell."

He said the plan also encourages aesthetic improvements along county roadways, with more greenery and the placement of new development farther back from roads.

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