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Farmers disagree over proposal to relax zoning rules for pick-your-own operations

A proposal to relax the zoning regulations for pick-your-own operations has farmers at odds with one another.

The zoning regulation amendment before the County Council, which was discussed at a public hearing Jan. 17, would remove the requirement that pick-your-own produce operations and cut-your-own Christmas tree or flower businesses in rural conservation zoning districts must have frontage on and direct access to a collector or arterial road.

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Department of Planning and Zoning Director Marsha McLaughlin said the amendment is being introduced at the request of an existing pick-your-own operator "that, because of the economic downturn, has the possibility of acquiring some (additional) land." Though McLaughlin wouldn't say who the operator was, it was revealed later in the hearing that it is Larriland Farm, in Woodbine, which offers pick-your-own fruits and vegetables and wants to buy more property in western Howard County to expand its business.

The proposal drew opposition from several farmers in the west county who said the local roads cannot handle the traffic that would be brought in by pick-your-own operations.

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"Farmers use these local roads regularly, seven days a week during the grow season. … In addition to farm machinery, there are many, many bicyclists who enjoy riding on our local roads. You can then add in horses and horse buggy riders," said Woodbine farmer Sandra Lutes, who lives off Jennings Chapel Road.

She said local roads, defined in the zoning regulations as having "minimal through traffic, if any," were not intended to handle traffic created from pick-your-own enterprises.

Woodbine farmers Robert and Leslie Long, whose 200-acre property is situated next to Larriland, cited similar concerns about traffic congestion.

"Operating farm equipment on these roads is dangerous as is," Leslie Long said.

Farmers, she explained, ride in tractors going about 15 to 20 miles per hour and are subject to rear-end collisions from drivers who misjudge how slow the tractors are moving. The local roads, which she said are about 18 feet to 20 feet wide and don't have shoulders, also create a hazard for cars trying to pass farmers.

Former council member Charlie Feaga and his son, Howie Feaga, who owns a farm in Glenelg, had not planned to testify, but decided to after listening to the eight opponents.

"If all the farmers out there in western Howard County could hear what went on tonight, they'd be disappointed," Charles Feaga said.

Farming, he said, has had to evolve and will continue to evolve to remain sustainable. Pick-your-own operations, he added, produce income that some farmers need to keep their land.

Howie Feaga echoed his father's sentiments, adding a message for the opponents: "It's really wrong to belittle a farmer that's trying to make a living."

Woodbine resident Theodore Mariani told the council they should "strike a middle ground that could serve the farmers and their needs and protect the citizens." His suggestion was to require a professional traffic study to be done before a property owner is issued a permit for a pick-your-own operation.

The council is scheduled to vote on the legislation Feb. 6.

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