Farmers 'shortchanged' by White Flint plan, groups say

By Miranda S. Spivack
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 28, 2010

Environmental groups in Montgomery County say local lawmakers aren't asking developers to do enough in exchange for development rights in White Flint and should require more payments to a county fund that helps farmers protect their land from development.

"Farmers and county residents will be shortchanged with little to show in terms of significant protection of farmland," they said in letters sent Friday to the County Council.

The proposed zoning law, slated for final council approval Tuesday, requires developers seeking to build denser, urban-style suburbs to help subsidize farmland in the county's 90,000-acre agricultural preserve, mostly northwest of Rockville. It is considered the largest farmland preservation program in the country.

Mostly aimed at White Flint, the law would make some payments for agricultural preservation mandatory and others optional in a complex formula that trades dollars for density.

The environmental groups want the council to tweak the proposed law to increase the mandatory payments, saying they are too low and could lead developers elsewhere in the county to ask that their farmland preservation payments be similarly low.

In Germantown and Twinbrook, a bonus payment is required for 30 percent of any added density; in White Flint, a bonus payment would be required for only 5 percent of any added density, with the option to pay more to get more. The proposed law, aimed at White Flint but potentially applicable elsewhere in the county, offers developers other, potentially cheaper ways to add more density. It's not clear that they would willingly pay more to aid farmland preservation if they could pay less to provide the county some other amenity it wants -- and still increase their density.

"The optional purchase . . . will likely not become a reality," said a letter from the Audubon Naturalist Society, the Montgomery Countryside Alliance, the Sierra Club and the Sugarloaf Citizens Association. The League of Women Voters also criticized the arrangement in a separate letter. All the groups want the White Flint bonus payment to increase to 15 percent of added density.

Montgomery's agricultural preserve, the brainchild of incumbent Planning Board Chairman Royce Hanson, was established 30 years ago to discourage development in rural areas and encourage it in more densely populated areas surrounded by transit.

Hanson said Friday that he thought that increasing the payments on developers in White Flint could backfire. He said the Planning Board and County Council had struggled to find the right balance to encourage developers to build where "development is desirable," such as in areas served by public transit, and discourage it where more development could lead to more sprawl.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company