Regional Map Main Menu Related Stories

Montgomery's Line of Defense Against the Suburban Invasion

By Stephen C. Fehr
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, March 25, 1997; Page A01

Houses in the Seneca Crossing development in Mountgomery County, Maryland.
(Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
For two centuries, not much has changed in western Montgomery County, the land that suburban sprawl forgot.

For two centuries, not much has changed in western Montgomery County, the land that suburban sprawl forgot.

The scenery brings to mind an Andrew Wyeth painting: weathered barns and farmhouses set amid woods, meadows, pastures and orchards, none more than 35 miles from the White House. Most of the winding two-lane roads are paved, but people cross the Potomac River into Northern Virginia the same way they have since 1828—by boat at White's Ferry.

Montgomery County wants to keep its vast countryside—twice the size of the District of Columbia—the way it's been since Colonial times. County leaders are trying to prove that a local government in a booming urban area can save a large swath of green space while adding jobs, housing and people. Local governments rarely succeed at this, or even try; the dominant settlement pattern of U.S. cities is outward, swallowing up larger and larger amounts of forests and farms.

"Looking at our country's development over time, it's rare you skip an area," said Norman Dreyfuss, a Montgomery County developer who heads the Suburban Maryland Building Industry Association.

So far, however, Montgomery's preservation strategy is working. No other urban county in the nation has legally protected as much green space—93,252 acres—from development. Montgomery's aggressive but little-noticed approach involves buying easements, or restrictions, on thousands of acres of farmland as a fire wall against the spread of housing tracts. An additional 40,000 acres have been protected through a first-of-its-kind exchange program in which developers pay farmers to continue raising crops and animals. In return, the county gives developers permission to build extra housing units in otherwise controlled-growth areas.

Called the "agricultural reserve," the area is part Rock Creek Park, part Old McDonald's farm. It's a place for a serene Sunday drive to escape the traffic, noise and congestion of the city, so the kids can see horses or stop at Ben Allnut's farm near Seneca to pick strawberries, apples or pumpkins. The countryside, a third of Montgomery's land area, includes the far western and northern sections of the county, bordered by the Potomac and Frederick and Howard counties.

But Montgomery's cherished reserve is by no means safe forever. Farming's future in the county is in doubt. Eight of 10 county farmers said in a recent survey that their farm income alone can't support their families. If that $285 million-a-year industry dies, pressure will build from landowners and developers to turn farmland into houses for a county population projected to swell from 817,000 people today to 1 million in 2020.

"They can preserve all the land they want, but it won't be saved if agriculture isn't profitable," said Jean Phillips, of Germantown, who grows vegetables for Giant Food supermarkets.

Speculators, who own six of every 10 acres in the farm reserve, are eager to march in. A one-acre lot in the reserve currently is worth $5,000, but the value would rise dramatically if the restrictions on the land were removed. "It's inevitably going to be developed," said Harry Leet, of Gaithersburg, a retired lawyer who still holds several hundred acres west of Poolesville he bought during the 1960s.
A view of rural Northwestern Montgomery County from Sugarloaf Mountain.
(Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

Candy giant Mars Inc., of McLean, one of several companies that own land in the reserve area, led an effort to do an end run around the county five years ago, Montgomery planning officials said. Mars and a few other landowners asked the small town of Laytonsville to annex 1,468 acres of farm reserve to build a luxury home subdivision, tripling the town's size. Laytonsville rejected the overture, but similar solicitations are possible in the future, officials said.

Other pressures come from Northern Virginia. Just as Robert E. Lee's Confederate troops sloshed across the Potomac at White's Ferry en route to the battle of Antietam in 1862, the southerners are threatening to drive north again.

This time, the fight is over a plan pushed by Northern Virginia business interests to build a western highway outside the Capital Beltway, linking Interstate 95 in Stafford County, Va., with Interstate 70 near Frederick, Md. One proposed route would slice through the heart of Montgomery's green space, an idea opposed by every county executive, County Council, planning board and Maryland governor for a decade.

"The development pressure it would create would be enormous," said Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D).

In many ways, Montgomery County is a metaphor for Maryland, where protection of natural resources is a clear priority of state and local governments. Among counties nationwide that legally protect farmland, seven of the top 10 in acres preserved are in Maryland, led by Montgomery. This year, Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D), has proposed legislation that would channel additional state money to help counties buy easements on farmland restricting development. And he would reward counties with state money if they confine development to existing or planned growth areas while keeping forests, farms and wetlands intact.

Maryland's proximity to the country's largest estuary, the Chesapeake Bay, has forced the state to look at how growth affects one of the world's richest fishing grounds. "Maryland feels it is the trustee of the bay," said Stephen Z. Kaufman, a Silver Spring lawyer who represents many developers.

The concept of stewardship is backed by Maryland courts, giving local governments wide authority to set up programs that benefit the community as a whole. In Virginia courts, by contrast, the right of the individual usually outweighs the community good. That leaning, land-use lawyers say, would favor landowners if governments tried to set aside large green areas. Local governments in Virginia also would have to get the state's permission before establishing a reserve of open space, a requirement not imposed on Maryland counties.

Maryland is far from being a preservationist's ideal; many of the sprawling neighborhoods of Montgomery are no different from those in Fairfax County. Environmental leaders say Montgomery planners could do more to prevent big houses on big lots, which eat up green space while raising the cost of services such as schools, water and roads that the county must provide to far-flung areas.

"Every county will tell you they've done a great job" saving green space, said Lee Epstein, a top official of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, a private conservation group. "However, all is not rosy in Montgomery County. There is still a lot of zoning that allows one housing unit on two acres. It's okay to do a little of that, but if you do a lot, it's called sprawl."

* * *

Royce Hanson came to Montgomery County during the 1950s when the postwar expansion of the suburbs drove up land prices and increased development pressure. By 1960, the land had greater value for houses than farms, triggering a rush by speculators, who bought up more than half of the county's land.

Hanson, then a professor of government at American University, was appointed to the county planning board in 1971 to help brake Montgomery's growth. Despite the board's slower, orderly approach to development, Montgomery still was losing about 1,300 acres of farmland a year to development as the 1980s approached. Rural Montgomery brimmed with spacious homes on five-acre lots, a pattern that was killing farming, consuming green space and driving up property taxes needed to pay for the services.

Hanson, by then chairman of the planning board, set about to stop the hemorrhaging. The son of an Arkansas truck farmer, Hanson knew how to talk to farmers and had a feel for the land.

"As early as I can remember, I had a commitment to conservation. And I understood something about living on the soil, so I had sentiments resonant with farmers," said Hanson, now a professor at the University of Texas at Dallas.

Like generals preparing for battle, the board first drew a defensive line around the immense area of the county where farms outnumbered subdivisions. Only one home would be allowed on each 25 acres within this area, a limit that would discourage home building, since few people want a single-family home on that much land. As further restraints, roads weren't to be widened there, and water and sewer lines wouldn't be extended. With that, Hanson and the board believed they had set Montgomery's growth patterns for generations.

"Until this, there were always going to be areas of the county up for grabs," said Kaufman, the developers' attorney.

Farmers Drew Stabler and his brother Robert, pour feed into a trough to feed some of their calves.
(Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

Winning over farmers depended on Hanson's finding a way to compensate them for the land value they'd lose once the reserve was created and their acreage probably couldn't be sold for home building. The shift would undercut the equity they depended on for major expenses, including their retirement and their children's college education. "We had to make the farmers feel they were being treated fairly," Hanson said.

The budget-minded county didn't have the money to pay farmers for the lost value, but Hanson's staff reminded him of a concept that had been tried in a few regions with mixed success. Farmers would continue working their land in exchange for selling "rights" to developers to build homes elsewhere in Montgomery.

In this way, farmers could raise cash and developers could boost their profits by increasing the number of homes they built in a subdivision. The county could keep green space while steering growth into areas such as Olney and Potomac, where it had ample roads, utilities and schools.

"We had created a balance: conservation of a rural area that was to be a kind of cultural resource, and higher-density housing where we had the public facilities to support it. That's an efficient pattern of development," Hanson said.

At first farmers didn't like Hanson's plan, shouting down county officials at an endless series of meetings and accusing them of engineering "a communist plot" to take their land. Months of intricate negotiations followed, with farmers reluctantly going along. To this day, some farmers believe they got a raw deal.

"We could have fought and fought and wound up with nothing," said Drew Stabler, whose family has farmed for seven generations near Brookeville. "Short term, yes, I would have been against this program, because it took away some of my equity. But we looked at it long-term, for the good of the family and the area. It gave agriculture a lease on life."

Stabler and his brother, Robert, who are field crop and livestock farmers, were assigned development "rights" in the early 1980s based on a formula of one right for each five acres. Then they waited for a developer to approach them.

In 1985, Leonard Kapiloff, a dentist, developer and newspaper owner, was planning a subdivision on land he owned in fast-growing Olney, just east of Georgia Avenue and a few miles from the Stablers' farm. Kapiloff put up $3.2 million to purchase 637 development rights from 35 landowners, including the Stablers. With those rights, he won county permission to build 1,200 single-family homes and town houses on his site, rather than the 200 single-family homes that would be have been his limit without the extra development chits.

Thus was the Hallowell Farms subdivision born. The Stablers' 24 rights, sold for $5,000 apiece, made possible the houses along St. Theresa Drive and Buehler Road. David Keyman, a retirement fund manager, bought one of the houses on St. Theresa, and the Stablers used their money to buy more land and equipment. "It was Montgomery County's way to save some green space without the developers taking it over," said Keyman, now 44 and a divorced father of two children.

Other residents on the receiving end of development aren't thrilled that their neighborhoods are more crowded because of the transfer program. "The county hasn't followed through on its commitment to put additional money for adequate schools, roads and parks" in places such as Olney and Fairland, said Stuart Rochester, a Fairland community activist. "To be fair, you have to give the receiving areas the infrastructure."

County leaders haven't relied on the development rights program alone to guard the agricultural reserve. They also spend about $1 million a year to buy easements on farmland in strategic locations along the eastern edge of the reserve, the vulnerable point at which development stops and green space begins. Since 1990, the county has bought development restrictions on 48 farms, covering 5,383 acres. Glendening wants to

put additional dollars into a similar state program that has allowed Montgomery to purchase easements on nine other farms with state money.

Parcel by parcel, the county is deliberately putting up a "defensible perimeter," as one official put it, to prevent developers from considering incursions into the agricultural reserve.

"Even if someone was thinking about extending water and sewer lines into the reserve to build houses, you'd still have to get past thousands of acres of protected land along the [eastern] edge to do it," said Edward Thompson Jr., of Barnesville, chairman of the county's agriculture preservation advisory board.

* * *

On a recent drive through the Montgomery County countryside, prominent Northern Virginia developer John T. "Til" Hazel said he "didn't see anything that was worth a damn."

A typical road scene in Northwestern Montgomery County.
(Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

"All I saw was a bunch of broken-down abandoned farms, silos unused, dairy farms unused, weeds growing up in a field, a lot of vacant land," said Hazel, also a lawyer and farmer. "Unless it's functional or producing . . . that whole western county out there is a wasteland."

For years, Hazel has led the charge

for a new highway outside the Beltway linking I-95 in Northern Virginia with I-70 in Maryland. Under some of the proposed routes, the road would cut through western Montgomery. This would give drivers another river crossing to avoid the congested Beltway, better access to Dulles International Airport and a new path to the job centers of Northern Virginia.

Maryland officials argue that the road would serve only Virginia development interests while ruining the pastoral landscape Montgomery has tried so hard to save. It also would boost travel at Dulles at the expense of Baltimore-Washington International Airport, the state's main airport.

For now, Virginia officials are going ahead with plans to build the part of the road on their side of the river. They believe Maryland officials eventually will change their minds and allow a crossing through Montgomery or Frederick county. Figures from the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments show that by 2010, Montgomery and Frederick counties will send three commuters across the American Legion Bridge for every Northern Virginia driver heading to a job in Maryland.

"If that pattern continues, voters in Maryland will turn to their government and say, 'You've got to find a

way for us to get across the river,'‚" said Leo J. Schefer, head of the Washington Airports Task Force, an organization that promotes Dulles. Schefer, Hazel and others say the road could be designed as a parkway, with a limited number of interchanges, to satisfy preservationists.

"I'd tell Til Hazel not to hold his breath," said Hanson, the father of the agricultural reserve.

The reserve's survival also depends on a healthy agriculture industry. If farming isn't profitable and farm children don't put on their parents' overalls—the average age of Montgomery farmers is 57—developers can argue that houses should replace cropland.

Dairy farms are nearly gone in Montgomery. Farm families are relying on second jobs for income, and most farm children are looking for anything but agriculture jobs. Machinery dealers and seed and supply houses have fled the county. Those who stay in farming increasingly are shifting to flowers, sod, pick-your-own fruits and vegetables and horses.

"Agriculture has constantly been evolving," said Ben Allnut, whose family has been farming near Seneca Creek for 200 years. His father grew corn, but Allnut plants the fruits and vegetables that supply local Giant and other supermarkets. Schoolchildren tour his farm, and down-county residents come to pick the bounty.

A few miles from Allnut's farm, in Beallsville, Jane Hunter and her neighbors have a different worry. County officials have grabbed about 3,000 acres from the reserve for a landfill, incinerator and composting plant, which Hunter said mars the natural beauty of the reserve. Hunter and others fear more of the same.

"They talk about this reserve being nationally acclaimed, but the underbelly is the industrialization of it," said Delores Milmoe, of Beallsville.

Annexation is another potential menace. Poolesville, Barnesville and Laytonsville are among seven towns and villages within the farm reserve that can annex county land virtually unchallenged; a developer could offer them enticing promises to build roads and boost tax revenue.

"If we saw towns doing annexation that jeopardized the reserve, I suspect we'd [go to court] to prevent that," said County Executive Duncan.

Duncan and other officials said they believe Montgomery's countryside willstay green for decades. The county still has plenty of room for growth in places such as Clarksburg and Germantown and ample opportunities to redevelop aging neighborhoods in Silver Spring and elsewhere. A politician who suggested development in the farm reserve would risk certain defeat, they said.
Ben Allnut surveys his fields.
(Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

"The reserve is the secular faith of Montgomery County," said Gus Bauman, a Washington lawyer and former chairman of the county planning board. "We've proved you can do both: save agricultural resources and still provide for growth for future residents and jobs."

A future County Council "could always bag it," warned council member Nancy Dacek (R), of Darnestown, whose district includes the reserve. A pro-development council was elected in the early 1960s in Montgomery, and the pendulum could always swing back. No one knows that better than the farmers.

"For years, we've talked about protecting western Montgomery County and building up Olney and other places," said farmer Stabler. "Who's to say sometime in the future Maryland might say, 'Let's protect the Eastern Shore and build up Howard and Montgomery county'?"

Major developers in the county said they have no current interest in invading the reserve. The idea would be as silly as New York City leveling Central Park for skyscrapers, said Kaufman, the developers' attorney.

But Tony Natelli, who built the upscale Avenel subdivision in Potomac through extensive purchase of development rights from farmers, raised the inevitable dilemma for the future. As Montgomery County matures, he says, the newcomers will want to live in single-family homes in a green setting.

"In later years," Natelli said, "are people going to be willing to live in high-rises instead of the good old American dream?"

© 1997 The Washington Post Company

Back to the top