Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Environmentalists vs. farmers at council hearing

Proposed changes to agricultural policy pit farmers against open space advocates

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Rural landowners that want to subdivide their properties to build houses for their children spoke at a County Council hearing last week against proposed legislation to change the provision that allows it.

‘‘We have trusted the county and planned accordingly, never thinking that the county would call into question its long-standing interpretation of the law,” said Joanne Weber, who owns a farm in Boyds. ‘‘We do not fit the mold of a developer or [have] a large parcel of land. Our property rights are what we are defending.”

Some environmentalists, however, say the child lot provision has been abused and spoke in favor of the proposal to strengthen it.

The County Council is considering new Agricultural Reserve legislation based on the report of its Ad Hoc Agricultural Policy Working Group. The group’s 15 members were appointed by the County Council in April 2006 and included farmers, property owners, former elected officials and agricultural advocacy leaders. The group spent eight months formulating recommendations to preserve the county’s 93,000-acre agriculture reserve.

More than 25 people spoke at the council hearing Thursday night as individuals or on behalf of agricultural advocacy groups and the working group. So many people attended that an overflow room had to be set up to accommodate everyone.

When the county created the Agriculture Reserve in 1980 it wrote a child lot provision to encourage family farming in the reserve by allowing property to be subdivided for children to provide them with housing on the family property.

The working group recommends keeping the child lot provision in place with a few changes. Those changes include limiting child lots to one per child, stipulating that the child must own the home for five years before it can be sold or leased except to a member of the immediate family, and requiring that the majority of land on any child lot be reserved for agricultural purposes.

The group also clarifies that the creation of a child lot requires the use of one Transferable Development Right (TDR).

Farmers can sell TDRs to developers in other parts of the county to regain the equity they lost when their land was rezoned from one house for every five acres to one house for every 25 aces in 1981. Developers can use the TDRs to build with greater density in other parts of the county, thus not disturbing the agricultural land.

Agricultural advocates charge that Agricultural Reserve residents are building homes for people other than their children. They do not think the group’s recommendation goes far enough to protect the Agricultural Reserve.

The county Planning Board agreed, voting unanimously on July 12 to ask the County Council to amend the child lot provision to prohibit the creation of child lots above the base density of the zone. The Ag Reserve is zoned for one house for every 25 acres.

Vesa Ganessa, who owns a farm in Laytonsville, testified that her family planned to use the child lot provision for the intended purpose of encouraging family farming. Her grandchildren are eager to farm on the land her family has owned since 1975, she said.

Joanne Weber and her husband, Charles, bought their small farm in Boyds more than four decades ago and applied to the Planning Board in 1998 for three child lots; however, the engineering study of their land did not start until 2003.

The Weber family’s application for child lots was suspended in November 2005 while county agencies studied the child lot zoning provision. Charles Weber wants to pass the family farm on to his children and keep an acre of walnut trees that he planted 30 years ago intact.

‘‘We were in the pipeline long before the working groups and ad hoc committees were appointed,” Joanne Weber said. ‘‘It seems logical we should be grandfathered in to allow us to proceed. All of this has been extremely hard on my husband, as well as the rest of the family, both financial and emotionally.”

However, many environmental advocacy groups spoke in support of the Planning Board’s recommendation to change the child lot provision. The groups generally want to preserve the open space of the Agricultural Reserve.

Dolores Milmoe of the Audubon Naturalist Society said her organization has documented frequent abuse of the child lot provision and that something needs to be done to stop that abuse.

‘‘We are here to strongly endorse the Planning Board’s recommendation, which received a unanimous vote,” she said. ‘‘Contrary to some claims made tonight, child lots were not meant to address the equity issue. In fact, what they reward is fertility.”

County Councilman Marc Elrich (D-At Large) of Takoma Park asked Milmoe to submit her documentation of child lot abuses.

Jim Clifford, a lawyer, Poolesville farmer and member of the working group, testified in support of the working group’s recommendations.

He said he respects Planning Board Chairman Royce Hanson as a gifted academic, but his assessment of the child lot issue is not more credible than that of the members of the working group who have invested their lives in the Agricultural Reserve.

Clifford asked that the group’s report be approved as a total package instead of being picked apart on each issue.

‘‘I admit that we as the ad hoc committee have perhaps given you an imperfect set of solutions to difficult problems,” he said. ‘‘It was our charge to resolve these difficult problems and we tried our best to do just that. If we find in the future that some things need to be modified, then by all means let’s correct those, but first try what we have recommended.”

To learn more

The County Council’s Planning, Housing and Economic Development Committee will meet to discuss new legislation for the Agricultural Reserve at 2 p.m. Monday in the seventh-floor hearing room of the County Office Building, 100 Maryland Ave., in Rockville. No public testimony will be taken.