Charles C. Feaga is the only Howard County Council member who has made a living tending cattle and working fields from sunup to sundown.
In his sprawling West County District, which reaches east to Interstate 95 and west to Frederick County, he knows on a first-name basis many of the people whose fields and woods create western Howard's pastoral setting.
Make no mistake about it, Feaga (pronounced "figgy") and his constituents are scrutinizing the county's proposal to reduce building on land zoned rural conservation and save more of it for farming. Feaga minces no words, saying the measure from the Department of Planning and Zoning is an ill-conceived land grab.
"Do not try to zone land to scare people into selling it," said Feaga, 72, a folksy, staunchly conservative Republican who represented the western district for three terms, from 1986 to 1998, before making an unsuccessful bid to become the Republican candidate for county executive in 1998. He returned to his former council seat last year when he was appointed to finish the term of Republican Allan H. Kittleman, now a state senator.
The county's proposal, which planners are explaining in a series of talks this summer, would reduce allowable building on rural conservation land from one house per 4.25 acres to one per 10 acres. The plan also would eliminate the practice of permitting owners of rural conservation land to accept transfers of development rights from other areas, which often has resulted in building one house per two or three acres.
"Everybody hears one to 10 [units per acre], and everybody immediately goes into panic mode," said Marsha S. McLaughlin, director of the Department of Planning and Zoning. "Ten is a real hard number for Charlie."
McLaughlin hinted that planning officials might reconsider density limits for rural conservation land. But she clearly wants to end the practice of transferring development rights into that zoning category.
"All you're doing is creating friction between new residential owners and farmers," McLaughlin said.
The changes are subject to approval by the County Council, which might consider them as early as fall.
About 1,500 fewer houses would be permitted to be built in western Howard over two decades under the proposed zoning changes.
Planners are trying to sweeten the proposal by permitting landowners to sell development rights on large parcels of rural conservation land at one house per three acres, rather than building at the more restrictive density of one per 10 acres. The county has more than 19,200 acres under farm preservation easements, and officials hope the zoning changes would add 2,000 acres, most of it farmland but some sensitive environmental lands.
Feaga isn't impressed.
"The more they play with it, the harder it is to understand, and the more fear it puts into people," he said.
He thinks county officials are trying to please state planners, who for years have been critical of the building densities permitted on Howard's rural land. State planners have warned that the county needs to do more or they might withdraw certification of Howard's farmland preservation program. That would mean a loss of state tax funding, from $300,000 to $800,000 annually, to help preserve farmland and constitute a "slap in the face" to the county, said Joy Levy, administrator of the agriculture preservation program.
Feaga's gruff rejoinder: "We should be congratulated on what we've done, not threatened."
His tough stance is no surprise to people who have followed the long, contentious struggle in Howard to save farmland while accommodating growing numbers of residents. As a first-term council member, Feaga helped organize a tractor brigade of farmers who worked to defeat a proposal to downzone western land to one unit per 20 acres. Then and now, he labels such proposals "socialistic" and warns that they boomerang, pushing owners to sell quickly to the highest bidder.
But Phil Jones, president of the Howard County Farm Bureau, said,"The farming community needs to be represented by people who want to keep on farming."
David Patrick is one of those, still in the dairy business at his 250-acre farm near Dayton. Patrick, 74, said he started out decades ago with just a few cows, and today he has a herd of 200, a full line of machinery and two grown sons who want to continue farming the 1,200 acres the family owns and rents.
"We raised seven kids," said Patrick, who chairs the county's farmland preservation board of directors. "We had everything that we needed. We made it farming."
Feaga and his siblings made a different choice in the late 1990s, when they sold the 211-acre farm his father bought along Frederick Road west of Ellicott City. Feaga took over the farm at 17, after his father suffered a stroke. He said he was reluctant to sell the farm but went along with his siblings' wishes. He declined to say how much the family got for the land. The complicated land transaction involved subdividing the farm into the 80-house Brantwood subdivision.
Feaga and his wife, Barbara, still live in the 53-year-old house he helped build as a teenager, on land that was once part of the farm homestead and now is surrounded by suburbia. Feaga said he advised his seven children to pursue livelihoods other than farming.
"I was successful with farming," he said. "Today I don't think that's possible. I don't think it's advisable to go into agriculture in Howard County."
The Department of Planning and Zoning will host a community meeting on proposed zoning changes for the rural west at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Glenelg High School. For more information, visit www.co.ho.md.us/DPZ/RuralWestZoningUpdate.htm