An initiative to slow the pace of development in Howard County's rural west is getting a cold reception from landowners, builders and some politicians, who say the move would devalue land.
"I think it's a poorly conceived plan that doesn't take into account all of the property we have in preservation," said County Council member Christopher J. Merdon (R-Northeast County), who attended a 31/2-hour community meeting last week about the county administration's proposal to preserve more farmland in the western region.
The County Council, which must approve any zoning changes, might consider the matter this fall. Member Charles C. Feaga (R-West County), who also attended the Aug. 2 meeting, has said he opposes the changes.
Farmers drove their tractors to the meeting at Glenelg High School with signs on them that read: "We're Prepared to Defend Our Rights" and "Try Downzoning Eastern Howard County, Too." No one in the audience of more than 200 stood to express support for the measure.
The county has more than 19,200 acres of farmland under preservation easement, which is short of its goal of 21,000 acres. Land in the area is selling for about $40,000 an acre, or twice what the county can offer for development rights. As a result, the county hasn't been able to acquire any farmland for preservation for at least three years.
Preservation efforts also are hurt by the county's practice of allowing development rights to be transferred from properties to land zoned "rural conservation" in the west. That has resulted in building that exceeds the limit of one house per 4.25 acres on rural conservation land. Increasingly, subdivisions with houses built on two- and three-acre lots are claiming more of that land.
"Our rural zoning is leading to the development rather than the preservation of our best farmland," said Elmina J. Hilsenrath, chief of the county's Division of Environmental and Community Planning.
Officials in the county's Department of Planning and Zoning want to set a new density limit of one house per 10 acres on rural conservation land and eliminate the practice of transferring development rights. Planners say those changes would result in about 1,500 fewer houses being built in the west and an additional 2,000 acres of preserved land over 20 years.
Western Howard comprises 96,000 acres, including 12,500 acres that have not been developed or placed in agricultural easement.
Some landowners say the changes would play havoc with their plans to rely on their increasingly valuable property.
"Now I'm going to get punished because I didn't sell out," said Bob Davis of Woodbine, whose family has owned 57 acres there for nearly a century. "A lot of other people in here are in the same boat."
Randall Nixon, a West Friendship farmer, recounted the "harrowing experience" of serving on a 1992 citizens committee charged with crafting the current land use regulations. At the time, he said, residents reacted emotionally to the possibility of downzoning to one house per 20 acres.
"We received death threats on our phones," Nixon said.
That proposal was scaled back considerably, and the committee came up with ways to cluster houses, transfer density to other areas and get more land under protective easements, he said.
The system "still may have its flaws, but it does work," Nixon said. "Don't rush to judgment."
Like others in the room, he called for county officials to prepare an economic analysis of the proposed zoning changes.
Planning director Marsha S. McLaughlin was present at last week's session to answer questions. State Sen. Allan H. Kittleman (R-Howard) noted McLaughlin was representing County Executive James N. Robey (D).
Robey, who did not attend the meeting, has said in past years that he would not support downzoning the west, Kittleman said.
"No county executive lets his department heads go off on a whim," Kittleman said after the meeting. "Will the real Jim Robey please stand up?"
Victoria Goodman, a spokeswoman for Robey, said this week that the county's attempts to preserve farmland aren't working in the face of competition from developers.
"We are now working with data never before available as to the success of the agriculture preservation incentives," she said Tuesday. "It would be foolish, given the revised data, not to take it into consideration in a decision as important as this."
Goodman said Robey wants to hear from the public about the proposal.
"We wouldn't call it a whim. We have experts here who bring their ideas forth to the executive. He listens to them and the public and adjusts where necessary," she said.
In the coming weeks, McLaughlin said she'll meet with a small group of developers, land use lawyers and property owners to discuss possible revisions to the department's plan.
The efforts to rezone are prompted partly by concern among state planners and farmland preservation officials that the county isn't doing enough. State officials have said they might decertify the county's farmland preservation program if there aren't changes over the next year. That would mean less state tax revenue, estimated at $300,000 to $800,000 annually, for protecting farmland.
The state wants to protect the millions of dollars it has spent buying protective easements on Howard farmland, said James Conrad, executive director of the Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Foundation. He said state officials realize that an end-stage land rush is underway as Howard, one of the smallest counties in the state, approaches build-out.
"Large open space in Howard County is going to be the equivalent of waterfront property," Conrad said.