Study group seeking to clarify rules for Montgomery's Agriculture Reserve


From Gaithersburg's shopping strips and subdivisions, it's a short ride into farm country - gleaming grain bins, rolling fields, fertilizer fragrances.

Credit the contrast to the relentless creep of the Washington suburbs and to Montgomery County's Agricultural Reserve, a 93,000-acre model farmland preservation project and a bundle of competing interests.

At age 25, the reserve is considered ever more precious, even though growing confusion about the way it works just compelled the County Council to name a committee to fine-tune the rules.

Those involved in the effort say they hope the reserve will remain much as it is, meaning Montgomery County's status as Maryland's top pumpkin producer would probably stand.

Pumpkins? Montgomery County?

Yes, farmers grow lots of them. They also raise berries, peaches, tomatoes, corn, wheat, soybeans, ornamental trees, horses, beef and dairy cattle - all in the expanse that hugs the county's west, north and east rim. If the asphalt sprawl of Gaithersburg and Rockville is Montgomery County's popular face, people here say the reserve, occupying nearly a third of the county, is the "green lungs."

Breathing is one experience at, say, the Shady Grove Metro stop. It's another thing about a 15-minutes drive away in the reserve, outside Laytonsville, where a fox wandered in a back corn field one recent afternoon as a breeze rustled surrounding oaks, poplars, dogwoods and wild cherry trees.

Such scenes define the reserve, drawing people from the densely suburban "down county" for rural relief. They might visit a farm stand, walk the C&O; Canal towpath or take a drive or a bike ride along often narrow, winding roads to enjoy views of grazing cattle, forests and Sugarloaf Mountain to the north.

These idylls make the reserve a "key to the region's overall quality of life," as the organization Celebrate Rural Montgomery says in a brochure, but they belie the tensions that go with the territory.

"Everybody's got an ax to grind," says Nancy Dacek, a former County Council member and one of 15 members of the group that the council just named to study several questions about the reserve and return with recommendations at the end of the year.

Landowners - many of whom were unhappy about the reserve from the start - have their discontents about property rights, and farmers have beefs with open-space advocates, who in turn worry whether owners and real estate interests are busy trying to put more houses on the reserve than the rules were meant to allow.

By various means, in the past few years, reserve advocates have fought plans for a golf course, a crushed-gravel operation and a Saudi Arabian academy.

Michael Rubin, who has become wealthy as a developer in Maryland and elsewhere, has become a reserve activist in the past few years, buying 3,500 acres there to protect it from what he calls "the slow death, the death by a thousand cuts of the reserve."

Residents recently rallied against efforts of several large churches to have sewer and water lines extended into the reserve so that they could build there. The proposals would have made use of a provision exempting private schools, day care centers and churches from the water and sewer service ban.

Public pressure evidently helped persuade the County Council to eliminate that exemption in November.

Perhaps the frictions were inevitable when the new zoning that created the reserve went into effect in January 1981 as a way of protecting Montgomery's farming legacy from expanding suburbs. That growth has continued apace, and land values have soared, presenting complications that were not foreseen 25 years ago.

"I'm pleased it has survived the last 25 years," says Royce Hanson, who hatched the idea in the late 1970s when he was chairman of the county planning board.

By 1971, when Hanson became a planning board member, suburban developers were ravenous for Montgomery County farmland. According to the 1980 master plan that created the Agricultural Reserve, the county had 213,000 acres of farmland in 1950 and 150,284 in 1971. The amount has since dropped by half, and nearly all the remaining 75,000 farm acres are in the reserve.

Still, while the value of Maryland agricultural products has fallen since the last U.S. census, Montgomery's have increased more than in any other county in the state, rising more than 40-percent from 1997 to 2002, says Jeremy Criss, the county's agricultural services director.

Criss links the boost to higher-value crops sold by county nurseries, greenhouses and farmer's markets. He also credits the farm-friendly policies of County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, who created the current agricultural services division in the county Department of Economic Development.

The reserve plan created a rural and agricultural zone outside the bounds of the sewer system and changed the minimum size of a house lot in most of the district from five to 25 acres.

The key innovation, central to establishing the reserve, Hanson says, was compensating owners for lost property value by allowing them to sell development rights outside the reserve.

Developers who buy the rights are allowed to increase the density of their projects in communities such as Olney or Potomac. Such transfers of development rights had never been done nearly on that scale before, Hanson says.

Not everyone was happy about that, says Hanson, who recalls "there was some resistance."

Frank Jamison, whose family is in real estate and grain farming in the Poolesville area, was not subtle in his views of the planners' proposals.

"I think they're crazy as hell," he was quoted in the Washington Post on March 23, 1979.

Jamison still sells real estate, and his family is farming about 6,000 acres today, about 1,800 acres of which the Jamisons own, but he is more sanguine about the reserve.

"It's 25 years later," he says, insisting he does not want to see the "up county" go suburban. "I've learned to accept it."

Not without reservations, however. He says he isn't sure that the market price of the development rights transfers - up from about $6,000 in the 1980s to nearly $40,000 today - fairly compensates landowners for the value of higher density in such areas as Olney, Potomac and Shady Grove. Owners can sell one transfer of development rights for every 5 acres and usually hold back at least one so that they can develop one 25-acre lot within the reserve.

Drew Stabler, a grain farmer and study group member, says he is unhappy about objections some have raised to above-ground septic systems called "sand mounds." The systems allow houses to be built in about two-thirds of the reserve, where soil is unsuitable for conventional underground systems.

"If they take away the sand mound, they're taking away equity," says Stabler. "The land is our 401(k). That's what our retirement is."

Sand mounds, which some feel undermine the intention of the reserve, are on the study group agenda. So is a proposal to reduce buildable lots by having the county buy them from owners at market rates, which are about 10 times the current value of the transfer of development rights.

The group will also tackle whether to refine rules letting farmers exceed permitted density to give lots to their children who wish to live and work on the farm. Some owners have abused the rules by selling lots outside their families, but legal action has been blocked by the courts, says Criss.

These points all revolve around the question of planners' original intent, and that will be tough to sort out, says Wade Butler, owner of Butler's Orchard in Germantown and a member of the study group.

"That's probably the thorniest issue this group is going to face," says Butler. "One question I have is: Does one house per 25 mean one house per 25 or not?"

In the meantime, Butler's strawberries are coming up nicely, and folks are already heading out to his fields to pick their own. From now through fall, he will offer berries, apples, pumpkins and other fruits, trying "to have something to pick every day of the summer."

Whether the reserve is in the autumn of its days is another question. Butler will turn 50 this year, seven years younger than the average age of farmers in the reserve, half of whom make their entire living from the ground. He cannot help noticing that when local farmers gather for meetings, more and more of them seem to be in their 70s.

"I'm not sure what the future of some of those farms are," he says.

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