Monday, November 19, 2012

Tractors Crossing

(County Council)
Hard Place

Tonight, the Council will be hearing testimony on a piece of legislation that has been described by the former head of the Howard County Farm Bureau as "the most convoluted confiscation of property rights I've ever seen in my entire life."  In compliance with State Law (Sustainable Growth and Agricultural Preservation Act), the County must design "growth tiers" that correspond with water and sewer services (i.e., access to the grid).  Most controversial would be Tier IV, or "rural conservation" zone.  Quoting from Arthur Hirsch's illuminating piece on the subject:  "Within the bounds of zoning and the practicalities of how septic systems work, owners of land in that zone who are subdividing 20 acres or more can generally put up one house per 4.25 acres, or 23 houses on 100 acres. Under the council proposal, only four houses could be built on that 100-acre property."

Facing a "Farmland Cliff" of sorts, if the County does not make such a designation by December 31, all properties on septic systems will be limited to four or fewer lots, regardless of their size.

Howard Planning Director Marsha S. McLaughlin has some unfortunate quotes in the article, including, "They've had developers banging on their door for 20 years to buy their development rights."  Ugh.  I imagine that some of this is simply out of frustration and a lack of any other explanation.  The General Assembly, as they are known to do, made a controversial decision, but left the controversy for the Council to deal with.

Whether or not a rural property owner wants to turn their majestic 200 acre farm into a 50 unit development is not the issue.  The issue, and what you will hear in the testimony tonight, is that these farmers leverage the value of their land, with all development rights currently standing, for farm equipment, supplies, feed, and other matters of daily living.  If you had 200 acres of land, you would do the same thing.  But if that land is summarily stripped of the ability to develop, from 23 houses per 100 acres, to 4, that value is gone.  You money flow is gone.  Your very way of life is gone.  That collateral no longer exists, despite that fact that all it ever was existed in the mind of a banker.

I don't envy the Council here.  This matter has transformed from one of nitrates in the Chesapeake to the future of farming in Howard County, and all across the State.  If I were on the Council, I would contact one of the bankers that normally works with farmers in the rural west and ask them what can be done to preserve that collateral value.  Possibly a sunset clause on the law that needs to be renewed every 5 years?  Projected dates for connecting these rural properties with sewer access?

Soon after this law is implemented, there will be lawsuits, many of them focusing on whether the State used its power under the Takings Clause and, if so, whether due process was afforded those whose property rights were confiscated.  Yes, this is different than straight-up zoning.  The State isn't saying "You can't put an office building here."  They're effectively mandating preservation.

As noted in the article, back in 1982 the Council considered a similar piece of legislation that would have limited rural development to 20 acres per household.  30 tractors drove down from the west to the George Howard Building in the middle of January.

Holiday traffic may start a little early.