A citizens committee trying to resolve the controversial issue of whether and how to preserve more land in western Howard County is far from making its recommendations, but if preliminary comments provide guidance, there appears to be a consensus that the county should adopt no regulations that will produce financial harm to property owners.
As the 19-member committee met Monday for the first time, the county revealed that it has dropped one thorny proposal, to reduce the number of homes permitted in cluster subdivisions to one unit per 10 acres from one unit for every 4.25 acres.
"I don't think that's on the table anymore," said Marsha S. McLaughlin, director of the Department of Planning and Zoning, which last month revealed a series of proposed zoning changes which ignited a firestorm of opposition and led to the creation of the committee to seek a compromise.
She said the task of the committee is "certainly challenging" and acknowledged that her department's proposals have "raised a lot of concerns. There's a lot of anxiety out there."
Nonetheless, McLaughlin said, the county is committed to preserving as much farmland as possible and restricting development in the western region.
The committee comprises a cross section of the community, from developers and land-use attorneys to farmers and environmentalists. Many in these groups hold sharply divided views.
While those differences were evident at the meeting, a majority of the committee suggested it is troubled by the prospect of any plan that would financially penalize large property owners, mainly farmers, by significantly reducing the value of their land.
Some critics have said that many property owners have planned their estates based upon current zoning and claim the county's proposals would cost them millions of dollars.
"Families will have estate problems," said committee member Martha Clark, whose family owns the 400-acre Edgewood Farms. "We have to decide how much damage you want to do to them."
Committee member Ann Jones, a proponent of land preservation, said the increase in land prices throughout the county "is out of control. ... How can you accurately say someone is losing value?"
But Richard B. Talkin, an attorney whose clients include some of the largest developers in Howard County, said that argument is fallacious.
"If someone bought a home for $400,000 and it's now worth $800,000," he said, "they're going to have a problem if you come and say we're going to reduce that by $200,000.
"We have to start with the premise that we will not harm property values," Talkin said.
Ed Brown, a farmer, questioned the county's passion for preserving farmland. Howard County, he said "is not a farming community anymore, especially for the younger children." He said that it is too late to protect land for agriculture.
His family would lose "approximately 60 percent, if not more" in land value if the county's proposals are enacted, Brown said.
"Where is the fair market value? The government takes something for 40 cents on the dollar -- that's not right," he said.
Under pressure from the state, the county recommended last month a series of changes to both preserve more land and further restrict development in the west.
The state has threatened, in effect, to remove the county from Maryland's agriculture land preservation program without greater development controls in the west. But McLaughlin has also said that additional restrictions are needed because farmland is being developed with about the same density as other properties.
Among the key proposals still under consideration are:
Reducing over three years to 150 from 250 the number of housing units permitted on land zoned rural conservation (RC), which includes most of western Howard County and is the focus of the county's preservation efforts.
Prohibiting the selling of density, or building rights, from the RC district to property with the same zoning.
This proposal, critics say, would greatly reduce the value of land by removing development options.
The debate is focused on fewer than 50 parcels. The county has identified 25 parcels of 50 to 100 acres each of uncommitted land, and 16 parcels exceeding 100 acres in the RC region, said Elmina J. Hilsenrath, chief of the Division of Environmental and Community Planning, which oversees the preservation programs.
The county will run several computer models on how various development scenarios could affect the west over several years. Those results are expected to be the focus of the committee's next meeting, scheduled for Sept. 12.