The idea, county officials say, is to thin the number of new homes popping up amid the pastures and cornfields of western Howard and save more of that rolling land for farming. But restricting development would probably reduce a landowner's property value, even as developers are willing to pay more and more for scarce buildable land.
One possible solution, county officials said, is to provide more incentives for western landowners to sell their building rights to developers who, in turn, would be allowed by the county to build at higher densities elsewhere.
The question, however, is where?
"I think somebody better be discussing that," said Grace Kubofcik, a member of an advisory committee examining proposed zoning changes in Howard's rural west. During a meeting of the panel this week, Kubofcik said there might be areas in the east, such as around Route 1, that could be developed more densely in exchange for preserving farmland in the west.
"The citizens of the county ought to start biting some bullets," Kubofcik said. "What is the value of farmland preservation?"
Marsha S. McLaughlin, director of the Department of Planning and Zoning, said she believes the county has inadvertently allowed too much density on western land zoned "rural conservation" and has pushed to rewrite some regulations. Western landowners loudly protested her rezoning proposal, prompting her to appoint the advisory committee.
McLaughlin was concerned about the ramifications of escalating density in the east to save the west. "That's a huge issue," she said. "My guess is that would not be an easy sell."
Indeed, the sentiment that there's been too much development in Howard overall fueled a voters petition drive this year to make recent rezonings by the County Council subject to a 2006 referendum.
Still, committee members said bold steps may be needed to control the scramble to develop land in this small county.
In recent years, the county's farmland preservation program has stalled, unable to compete with developers who will pay up to $40,000 an acre; Howard offers about half that.
Chuck Sharp, an owner of Sharp's at Waterford Farm south of Glenwood, thinks the county should dig deeper into its pockets. Historically, he said, the county has been willing to pay less for farmland than it should, he said. He said the gap between what the county and developers will pay has only widened in recent years.
John Komsa, a member of the county's Agricultural Land Preservation Board, said perhaps small hamlets or villages in the west, such as Lisbon, could be designated for greater housing density. That scheme would depend in part on whether modern septic systems can handle more development. There are no public water and sewer services in the west.
Other committee members urged the county to look at becoming a middleman in land transactions by moving swiftly to buy development rights in the near future from western landowners, holding the properties and then reselling them to developers once questions are resolved about where the higher densities could be used.
Committee members also urged planning and zoning officials to provide detailed maps at their next meeting showing the properties they'd most like to acquire. There are just a handful of large property owners in the west whose land is not yet committed to either development or preservation. But there are also smaller parcels that border protected farmland.
"I can't believe some of that analysis has not been done," Kubofcik said. "What is it going to take to get there?"
One risk in that approach may be alienating owners who learn that their land is not on the county's wish list.
"Every farmer believes his farm is the best farm," Sharp said following the meeting. "That is an area where there could be some disagreement."