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County farm stand [Editorial]

Fall is a big time of year for agricultural tourism, from hay rides to apple picking, pumpkin carving and corn mazes. Increasingly, farmers are exploring ways to supplement their income and assure their financial viability, which is particularly important in a state like Maryland where unchecked suburban sprawl can eat up farmland like a swarm of hungry locusts.

Often, such enterprises work out as a win-win for the farmer and the surrounding community — a farm stand offers fresh fruits and vegetables, for example, or a dairy serves up scoops of delicious ice cream to passersby. But sometimes, there are conflicts. Offering to host weddings might invite too great a volume of traffic on a sleepy country thoroughfare, or a large grocery and gift shop might be too ambitious an enterprise for local tastes.

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That's why it's crucial that there be an adequate balance of what can become competing interests — the needs of a farmer versus the rights of his neighbors. This is an area where Baltimore County must tread lightly, and that's why County Executive Kevin Kamenetz is correct to threaten to veto pending legislation that appears to tilt that balance of power too far toward farmers.

The bill, which is scheduled to be taken up by the County Council Monday, sets up certain agribusiness opportunities as "permitted by right" — although also subject to certain standards such as ensuring there is adequate parking or hosting no more than 12 weddings or other types of celebrations per year. Whether those restrictions are adequate, however, is another matter.

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As introduced by Councilman Todd Huff, who represents much of the lightly-populated northern portion of the county, the bill appears overly broad. Critics fear it could compromise the rural nature of the region, which the county has historically gone to considerable lengths to preserve from commercial development. We are inclined to agree.

That Mr. Huff lost his re-election bid in the Republican primary earlier this year contributes to those misgivings, particularly as the candidate who defeated him, Del. A. Wade Kach, opposes it, as does Laurie Taylor-Mitchell, the Democratic nominee in District 3. So what's the rush? We don't see any reason for the current council to move quickly, particularly given the county executive's promise to veto the bill should it pass the council in its current form.

That's not to suggest that farmers should be thwarted at every turn on this issue. Indeed, on a case-by-case basis, the creation of an agribusiness may be a far better outcome for all involved than to see another large farm turned into a cookie cutter subdivision — even an upscale one with large lots, wells and septic tanks. That's how farm land is lost on a permanent basis, and along with it, the county's heritage and pastoral nature.

For a half-century or more, the Valleys Planning Council and others in the county have fought hard to preserve the rural north and the Urban-Rural Demarcation Line, advocating for "smart growth" long before it was cool in Maryland. Surely, the needs of modern farming can be accommodated without compromising one of the county's proudest achievements.

Sustainable agriculture ought to be the goal shared by all. Giving farmers carte blanche to develop their land into quasi-supermarkets or high-volume tourist traps, however, may increase profit margins but doesn't necessarily preserve farming. That's not to suggest that so-called agri-tourism can't help keep farmers farming, but the devil of such enterprises is in the details. Better to shelve the bill until the next council takes office and can pursue a more thorough examination of the issue.

To respond to this editorial, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

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