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County officials back off controversial new livestock, farm rules

The Howard County administration is backing off a proposal to revise the county code — with new rules regarding livestock on small properties and a new definition of a farm — after local horse owners raised an uproar about it.

"I think they're getting phenomenal heat," said Susan Gray, a land-use attorney and horse owner who had opposed the changes. Gray and others said the revisions would have posed a threat not only to horse owners, but to 4-H clubs and all agriculture in the county.

She said opponents still plan to rally Tuesday evening at the George Howard Building government headquarters in Ellicott City, where the County Council will hold a hearing on the countywide rezoning plan. The changes had been proposed as part of the comprehensive zoning revision that the county conducts roughly every 10 years. It's expected to be voted on by the council at the end of this month.

Howie Feaga, president of the Howard County Farm Bureau, said he was pleased to hear the county had dropped the code changes. Opponents said they would have more than tripled the lot size required to have a horse or other livestock, and change the definition of a farm in a way that could potentially have put legal obstacles in the way of small-scale agricultural pursuits.

"That would be wonderful," Feaga said of the administration's change of heart. "I know that would make a lot of people happy."

Marsha S. McLaughlin, director of the Department of Planning and Zoning, said officials were surprised at the opposition that emerged recently, as opponents had not spoken up earlier. The Planning Board has held two hearings and the council held five days of hearings on comprehensive rezoning.

She said a revised proposal is an attempt to respond to that criticism and to make the county proposals more clear. She said the changes were meant to be more precise about the definition of a farm — which is not now defined in county code — to curb activity that has led to complaints about animals in more densely populated areas of the county and to limit animal waste runoff into local streams and the Chesapeake Bay.

Now, she said, the county will not add a new rule defining a farm as land with an agricultural tax assessment and with agriculture as its primary use. The county will also stay with its existing 40,000-square-foot requirement for keeping livestock, dropping the 3-acre minimum.

Still, the agency is proposing new rules establishing some minimum land requirements for keeping farm animals, although there would be flexibility built into the new arrangement, she said. Landowners would have to have at least an acre — 9 percent larger than 40,000 square feet — to keep one horse or mule, two ponies, four llamas or alpacas, or five sheep or goats.

However, in cases where people want to exceed those limits, McLaughlin said they could do so if they have a plan to manage the pasture that's been approved by the county Soil Conservation District.

That flexibility seems to take account of an argument made in a four-page letter to McLaughlin written by Crystal B. Kimball, publisher of The Equiery, a print and online magazine covering Maryland's horse industry. Kimball had insisted that animal-to-acreage ratios alone do not ensure the health of the animals or the bay, as they do not necessarily mean the pasture is well maintained.

Kimball declined to offer a response to the new proposal until she had seen it in writing.

Amy Burk, a horse specialist with the University of Maryland, also wrote to the county to challenge the proposed new rules, saying the land requirements — including 1.5 acres per horse — were too high compared to industry standards and surrounding counties.

The revised proposal is more in line with neighboring counties. Anne Arundel County, for instance, sets a limit of two horses per acre, Baltimore County one per acre and Montgomery has a sliding scale depending on the number of horses: for one or two horses, 3 acres; for three to 10 horses, an acre per horse.

Sandra Brewer, a horse owner in Ellicott City, wrote to County Councilman Greg Fox saying the first set of proposed rules would make it more difficult to own livestock, and warned of the potential impact on an array of agriculture-related businesses as well as the 4-H clubs.

Gray, who said the latest proposal sounded like a big improvement, saw an even more dire consequence of the original plan. As the large farms that make the hay and straw that supply the smaller operations saw their profits fall, they might be threatened as well.

She said she felt the initial proposal was "defining farming out of the county."

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