Revisiting sprawl rules

Boniface vows to find common ground on development rights In his first legislative address before the County Council on Tuesday night, council President Billy Boniface will call for reform of the county's rules for transferring development rights, a hot topic among the county's agriculture community.

Previous efforts have made little headway, but Boniface vowed last week to find common ground. Critics have said the county's regulations fall far short of designing a comprehensive program that would help guide development countywide, not just in farming areas.


"This is a good opportunity to talk about the future and save land. We've got to, at some point, stop sprawl and stop putting wells in the ground," said Boniface, a Republican from Darlington.

Boniface said a robust transfer development rights program could even take the place of the county's celebrated agricultural preservation program, which has protected more than 40,000 acres of farmland.


Instead of the county paying landowners not to build on their land, farmers would sell their development rights to builders, who could only redeem them in a designated growth area.

The original transfer development rights law, adopted in the 1980s, allows farmers to make money on their land without building on it by selling their rights to build to another agricultural landowner. Though the county has a "development envelope," where growth may be directed, the law does not require that transferred building rights be received there.

Amid concern that the rules were being abused, then-County Councilman Lance C. Miller sought emergency legislation to end the practice. He was met with a torrent of complaints from angry farmers, who said their land rights would be taken away.

Miller said it might be too late for Harford to develop a legitimate TDR program. He said numerous task forces have studied the issue and failed to come to a consensus.

"I applaud their effort to take a look at it, but the time has passed for TDR in Harford County," said Miller, who did not seek a third term on the council. "It had its chance in the early 1990s, and we've seen 1,800 permits a year since then."

Friends of Harford, a land-use activist group, has been pushing for a true TDR program for years and endorses the idea of a receiving zone for building rights, said President Judy Blomquist.

"I'd like to see the farmers be able to sell any of their development rights, at any time, on the open market, to developers that were going to plunk them down some place inside the development envelope," Blomquist said. "The way things are set up now, there's no doubt agriculture [in Harford] could be lost completely."

Developers see the TDRs as an added burden. Not only must they acquire land, they must pay to get the new zoning.


At this week's council meeting, Boniface will join County Executive David R. Craig in underscoring the need for Harford to adopt a fresh zoning code that will pave the way for the county to resume the countywide rezoning process, which Boniface said "needs to be done right this time."

While Craig said he was still tweaking his speech - his second State of the County address and his first since being elected - aides said his speech to the Harford County Chamber of Commerce on Thursday night was a warm-up of sorts.

Craig, a Republican, prominently featured comprehensive rezoning and the zoning code rewrite in those remarks. Last year, Craig struck down a rezoning package approved by the County Council, saying it allowed too much growth outside the county's designated development area.

The move scrapped about 350 rezoning requests for parcels throughout the county and left hundreds of property owners unable to move forward on development projects.

The rezoning process takes place once every eight years.

"The issues in the preservation and the development communities sometimes are varied, but I think this time they have the same issue: What are you going to do, and when are you going to do it?" Craig told members of the business community.


Boniface said he has unsuccessfully pushed Craig and the county zoning department to speed up the zoning code rewrite, which officials estimate will be completed in late 2008.

"I wanted to see it done quicker, but this was a compromise," he said.

Craig spoke repeatedly about the need for county leaders to have a vision of what they're working toward, and he used the crowded Prospect Mill Elementary School zone as an example.

"My continual question is not where we're going to put it, but why did we let ourselves get into this mess in the first place?" he said. "That is one of the fundamental causes of frustration of our citizens and, frankly, one of the most frustrating things I confront every day."