Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Environmentalists vs. farmers at county hearing

Proposed policy changes 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 eight months of research done by the Ad Hoc Agricultural Policy Working Group.

When the county created the 93,000-acre Agriculture Reserve in 1980, it wrote a child lot provision to encourage family farming by allowing property to be subdivided for children.

The working group recommends some changes to the child lot provision, including 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.

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.

‘‘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.”

However, many environmental advocacy groups supported the Planning Board’s recommendation to change the child lot provision.

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.

‘‘Contrary to some claims made tonight, child lots were not meant to address the equity issue,” she said. ‘‘In fact, what they reward is fertility.”

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

‘‘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.”

The group also proposed creating a Building Lot Termination easement program, which would make one out of every five of the TDRs that farmers own more valuable by naming it a buildable lot.

The proposal received support from many farmers and agricultural advocacy groups.

A County Council subcommittee will hold a worksession on the measure at 2 p.m. Monday at 100 Maryland Ave., in Rockville.