Howard Co. landowners hoping to claim rights

Special to The Delmarva Farmer

(Feb. 7, 2017) On Jan. 26, Howard County Executive Allan H. Kittleman filed two county bills — one to restore property rights to more than 30 county landowners in western Howard County and a second that would help protect farming operations.
In addition, Kittleman announced he will also file a zoning regulation amendment to assist farmers in maximizing the use of their land for agriculture.
“Even if it’s just one property [that is effected], I want do this,” Kittleman said at a Jan. 12 press conference announcing his plans for the bills. “Philosophically, it’s the best thing. It’s the fairest thing for Howard County.” 
If passed, these two pieces of separate legislation would present a win-win for both the property owners whose development rights were stripped nearly four years ago and Howard County farmers, many who already have their land protected from development through Howard County’s Agricultural Land Preservation Program (ALPP).
At the heart of the issue, is a decision made by the Howard County Council in 2013 pertaining to land in the Rural Conservation and Rural Residential districts. The Tier III land in (rural residential) of 36 property owners in the western part of the county was placed into Tier IV (rural conservation) to accommodate the state’s Sustainable Growth and Agricultural Preservation Act.
The act decreased new development in areas served by septic systems to help protect the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. The law required the local jurisdictions to adopt “Growth Tiers” ranging from Tier I, the most developed areas with public services, to Tier IV, zoned for agricultural and conservation but severely limits the ability to develop subdivisions. 
The proposed zoning bill would move the impacted properties from Tier IV into Tier III, restoring zoning previous to the 2013 decision.
A second bill would improve the farmers’ ability to conduct agricultural operations by discouraging “nuisance suits” brought on by those who reside in newly developed land abutting farms. The bill would require a plaintiff to cover all legal costs in civil suits if the court finds the farming operation in question not to be a “nuisance.” Other nearby counties, such as Montgomery County, have adopted similar laws.  Since 2007, Montgomery County has required sellers of property in “agricultural zones to notify potential buyers that state and county laws protect owners and operators of agricultural uses from certain Lawsuits.”
The Zoning Regulation Amendment would adjust set-backs from Certain Farm operations, Kittleman said. Currently, Howard County farmers cannot build a structure to house animals closer than 200 feet to any dwelling. The proposed legislation would eliminate that requirement from agriculturally zoned properties.
To some, like local turf farmer Lambert Cissel whose land was impacted by the current system, the news was a breath of fresh air. “It’s fantastic,” said Cissel who added he felt like the Maryland law robbed him and others of their property rights. Other land-owners who were impacted feel the legislation, if passed, lets them pass on the land to their next generation who will have the freedom to choose to farm it or sell it for a fair market value.
“The introduced legislation is extremely important. Farmers are not all opposed to preservation, on the contrary,” said Natalie Ziegler, a county landowner, who stated that many of the farmers who have not sold their land into the preservation program, were planning to leave the land to their grandchildren or great grandchildren. “But to have your biggest business asset just devalued by the stroke of a pen by the county council is very frightening.”
“This legislation is very important, not just to my family, but to all farmers in Howard County and all future farmers in Howard County,” said Blair Hill of TaHill Farm in Lisbon. He’s proud to live in a county that protects property rights.
It’s a “precedent-setting piece of legislation that, to my knowledge, hasn’t been done anywhere else, certainly not in this state,” said Justin Brendel of Brendel Family Farms in Woodbine when referring to the proposed right-to-farm legislation.
To Howie Feaga whose farm – Merry Acres Farm – was placed in preservation some years ago, the ZRA as written does not go far enough. He said he wants the amendment retroactive to the date that his land went into preservation. This would give him the right to build a structure for animals closer than 200-foot set-back from a nearby dwelling on an adjacent property while still adhering to the 30 foot set-back from the property line.
“It should retroactively apply to all land placed in preservation,”  Feaga said.
“It’s a complex issue,” said local Howard County Farmer, Keith Ohlinger, who advocates for Maryland’s right-to-farm but also understands the financial dilemma that the impacted property owners may perceive with Howard County’s current agricultural land tier system.
Ohlinger, whose family has been farming for over 400 years or so, moved to the county a little over four years ago from nearby Montgomery County.
He advocates that those who put their land in the county’s ALPP would benefit greatly, potentially receiving up to $40,000 per acre.
“Howard County is at the epicenter of the state and nationally,” he said adding, the county’s model of what agriculture, urban and residential zones looks like - the boundaries put in place - could set the standard for Maryland.
A public hearing is scheduled for Feb. 21 and the Howard County Council is scheduled to vote on the legislation March 6.