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Council approves zoning changes to aid swim clubs, pick-your-own produce farms

The County Council unanimously passed legislation March 5 altering provisions of the county zoning law, one aimed to help cash-strapped nonprofit swim clubs and another aimed to help Larriland Farm expand its business.

Council member Courtney Watson, an Ellicott City Democrat, introduced the zoning regulation amendment that alters her 2008 neighborhood preservation bill to include swim clubs.

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The original legislation authorizes property owners in the county's older residential neighborhoods to sell the development rights to their unused land to prevent them from building new housing that is incompatible with the existing units. An easement is then placed on the land to prevent future development.

Expanding the bill to include swim clubs, Watson said, could help the clubs in two ways. The clubs can sell the development rights, worth about $50,000 per right, to the land they haven't built on and use the money to pay for the capital improvements they need. In addition, once that land is placed in an easement, the state property tax assessors will value it at a lower rate than if it were developable, and the clubs will save money on their tax bills.

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"This bill, while not perfect, will be an additional tool for swimming pools …to assist them in sustainability," Watson said.

The amendment is Watson's second attempt to help the county's six nonprofit swim clubs find money to help pay for capital improvements to their aging facilities. The first, a bill that would have given the swim clubs a property tax break, was rejected by the council July 28 in a 3-2 vote.

The council also passed a zoning regulation amendment that 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.

The legislation is aimed to help 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.

"I'm quite pleased," Larriland owner Lynn Moore said after the vote. She said her family is looking to open another pick-your-own operation on different land but nothing has been finalized.

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.

In an attempt to address those concerns, the council added a provision to the bill that would only allow access from local roads if it is "safe based on road conditions and accident history, and the local road is not internal to a residential cluster subdivision."

Sandy Lutes, who lives off Jennings Chapel Road in Woodbine, said the additional provision does not make her more comfortable with the legislation.

"There are no plans to improve these local roads, but they are expected to accept continually increasing traffic," she said.

Lutes added: "I feel it's the agenda of the county executive and the County Council to commercialize the RC district."

She also objected to the council passing legislation aimed at helping just one individual.

The council also voted to table a zoning regulation amendment that is aimed to bring the Columbia Inn at Peralynna into compliance with current zoning law. The bill would amend the county's zoning regulations to create a conditional use (special zoning exception) for boutique hotels.

Peralynna has been operating as a nonconforming use since late 2001, when a change to the county's zoning regulations eliminated the inn's boarding house special exception.

If the council passes the bill, Peralynna owners Cynthia and David Lynn will still have to go before the county hearing examiner to get the conditional use approval to operate as a boutique hotel.

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