Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Open forum: Council should consider Ag Reserve recommendations as a package

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Open letter to the County Council:

Two years ago, I wrote to The Gazette asking our County Council to include farmers in the policymaking process for the Agricultural Reserve.

The farmers were often overlooked by policymakers at Park and Planning and the County Council while enacting legislation regarding the Agricultural Reserve. The individuals whose lives and future were being tampered with, seemed to have no voice in the decisions being made. Rather, the dialogue was controlled by lobbyists, do-gooders and profit seekers.

That changed last fall. The County Council appointed a group of farmers, stakeholders and civic activists from the Ag Reserve to make up the Ad Hoc Agricultural Policy Working Group to study and reach a consensus on the difficult issues facing the Ag Reserve.

It became evident from the first meeting that these 15 individuals had a common resolve: keep what works in the Ag Reserve, fix what does not and above all remember that the survival of this highly important agricultural land region depended on protecting the farms, without destroying the farmers in the process.

It was realized that this was a difficult challenge and that a sensitive balance between preservation and economic viability must be reached. Despite the varied agendas of the Group members, a bond was forged over eight months, because each member could see the good faith effort being asserted by the other members to reach fair compromises.

During the eight months that the group met, we listened to a long parade of experts, policy makers and government officials. Long, sometimes heated discussions were had between what appeared to be a division of members, some who favored preservation for preservation sake, versus others who wanted to protect the property rights of the residents and property owners in the reserve. For the most part consensus was quickly reached on suggestions such as the Building Lot Termination (BLT) Program, because of the common goal of preserving agriculture and its way of life. On the more difficult issues, such as sand mounds and child lots, compromises were drawn, which required that the group members trust in the legislative process and in the County Council. The group’s co-chairman, in reporting to the County Council, asked the council to honor the hard work and the compromises made by the group members by passing all the items as a package.

Over the next few weeks, the County Council will be reviewing the Ad Hoc Agricultural Policy Working Group’s report and taking public testimony on the legislation produced by their staff from the recommendations of the group. Please consider seriously the Ad Hoc Agricultural Policy Working Group’s recommendation as a package since they will best work when taken as a whole. Don’t be swayed by those lobbyists, do-gooders and profit seekers asking you to cherry pick what is a well thought out and comprehensive plan for the future of the Ag Reserve.

James R. Clifford Sr., Gaithersburg

The writer, an attorney, is a member of the Ad Hoc Agricultural Policy Working Group.