Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Planning Board rejects residential development in Ag Reserve

Boyds subdivision would not promote farming, planners say

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Chris Rossi⁄The Gazette
Members of the Montgomery Countryside Alliance who opposed a residential development at Hilltop Farms in Boyds. Peter Eeg (from left), Dolores Milmore, Jim Coleman, Tom Leedy and Peg Coleman gathered Monday; the farm is in the far background.
A proposed Boyds subdivision opposed by residents and citizen groups was rejected by the county Planning Board on Thursday in a show of support for upholding land use regulations in the Agricultural Reserve.

The five-member board unanimously denied applicant Hilltop Farms Ltd.’s proposal to convert the 232-acre property on Slidell Road into eight lots — one 207-acre farm and seven clustered residential lots. Montgomery County Park and Planning staff had recommended that the board approve the project.

Though the board mostly discussed the more technical aspects of the project, described by Vice Chairman John Robinson as ‘‘a major case with policy implications,” the decision ultimately came down to whether the subdivision would support agriculture, members said.

‘‘I find this case a very troubling one,” said Chairman Royce Hanson, who helped create the 93,000-acre reserve in 1981. He described the increasing amount of residences in the reserve, where development is restricted, as an ‘‘extraordinary scar on the landscape.”

‘‘To continue this is a real thrust at the character and integrity of the reserve,” he added.

Many community members found the plans unpalatable as well. Last year, when the proposal first went before the board, 100 residents signed a petition against the subdivision, and 15 people signed up to voice their displeasure with the project at Thursday’s meeting.

‘‘Something is rotten in Denmark, and that is this plan,” said adjacent landowner Peter Eeg of Boyds, testifying on behalf of the Peachtree Ridge Citizens Association.

One issue of concern was a 1994 easement placed on the land under the county’s voluntary Agricultural Easement Program. Property owner Hilltop Farms, a family partnership created by Charles S. Faller Jr., was paid $895,610 by the county to relinquish its right to subdivide the property for future development, according to planning board documents.

However, under the easement, lots can still be created for the exclusive use of Faller and his six grown children, all members of the partnership, the documents state. Applicant Charles S. Faller III, president of Rockville-based Faller Construction Company and son of Charles S. Faller Jr., said at the meeting that the seven residential lots would only be used by the family.

Hilltop’s attorney, Stephen J. Orens of Rockville-based Miles & Stockbridge P.C., said that the project conformed to the reserve’s goal of preserving agriculture because the large farm lot would continue to be used as an equestrian operation.

Both Faller and Orens declined to comment after the meeting.

The farm lot is currently occupied by Rebecca Roach, operator of Moon Rising Farm. In 2003, Hilltop Farms contracted to sell the lot to the Roach family, though that deal is currently the subject of a pending lawsuit filed by Frank J. Roach Amended Trust in January in Montgomery County Circuit Court, according to court documents.

The lawsuit alleges that Hilltop Farms violated a lease and purchase agreement by failing to close the sale earlier that month, according to the court documents.

Also problematic was the large size of the seven residential lots, which Orens described as unsuitable for agriculture due to the slope and soil type. However, he later said that the lots promoted farming because they could be used for agriculture by the family members.

Orens also said that the partnership had demonstrated its commitment to the reserve by relinquishing its development rights to the land, which he said was worth $1.5 million today.

However, board members noted that in addition to being paid nearly $1 million for the easement, Hilltop was further profiting by selling portions of the property. In addition to the sale of the farm lot, Eeg purchased about 14 acres of the property from the partnership in 2005, he said. Some residents expressed concerns that the residential lots would be resold on the open market.

‘‘It seems we’re being shown a lot of smoke and mirrors here,” said Olney resident Sharon Dooley, who represented the citizen group Upcounty Action. ‘‘It’s akin to selling the Brooklyn Bridge — how many times can you sell the same piece of land?”