Some farmers change stance

September 23, 2002|by ANDREA ROWLAND

After fighting unsuccessfully against tighter land-use guidelines, at least one segment of Washington County's farm community has reversed itself and is asking the County Commissioners to temporarily prohibit farmers from carving their land into building lots.

Several members of the county's Agricultural Land Preservation Advisory Board said they believe a moratorium is needed primarily to defuse "pressure to sell in haste in a climate that is raging with high land values and unrestrained development" until the county formally adopts new zoning laws associated with the revised comprehensive plan.

Adopted in late August, the updated comprehensive plan cuts the number of housing units allowed on land zoned agricultural from one unit per acre to one unit for every 5 acres. County planners say it could take at least 18 months to implement associated zoning laws.


Developers already are pressuring several southern Washington County farmers facing financial hardship to sell their land before tighter zoning reduces the number of homes allowed on agricultural property, said advisory board Chairman David Herbst and board member Gerald Ditto.

More farmers probably will feel the pressure to sell due to financial troubles triggered by the drought and record low commodity prices, said Ditto, a Clear Spring area crop farmer.

"We could see a lot of valuable farmland go to development," he said.

Land sold now, under less restrictive zoning guidelines, is likely to be more valuable than land sold after its potential uses have been restricted by new zoning laws.

"Let's stop this train, get the same ticket, then decide where we're going," Ditto said.

A building moratorium would help conserve drought-depleted ground water supplies that would be stretched even thinner by new development, advisory board members said.

Formal request

The board on Sept. 13 formally submitted to the County Commissioners its request for a countywide moratorium on any subdivision activity or issuance of building permits until the finalization of new zoning approved in the revised comprehensive plan.

Board members know the recommendation will not meet with universal approval among the county's farmers, but they think it will serve the greater good of the farming community, they said.

"The majority of the farming community wants to stay in farming," said Herbst, a Ringgold area dairy farmer. "The only ones who will oppose (the moratorium) are the ones who want to develop."

Several individual farmers already have taken issue with county leanings toward a building moratorium. They say the drought is being used by the commissioners and others as a convenient excuse for bending to the will of hard-line land preservationists.

Clear Spring farmer Tom Firey doesn't plan to sell his land to developers during his lifetime, but he opposes a moratorium, he said.

"Wells are going dry because we're experiencing the worst drought in history," Firey said. "Moratoriums and regulations will not put more water in the ground. I think this is a convenient way to steal my land value and my land rights."

Farmers can borrow money against their land value and sell small parcels for development during hard times.

Clear Spring farmer Steve Ernst supports farmland preservation and understands the need to curb development, but he fears a moratorium could cause more harm than good.

Equity concerns

A moratorium might preserve farmland, but it also "has the potential to put some farmers out of business," Ernst said. "We have to realize that somehow we have to maintain the equity in the land. People are counting on that equity."

Firey and other local farmers said a moratorium would devalue farmland. They said devaluation was the main reason many farmers - including members of the land preservation advisory board - fought the down-zoning they equated to taking one's property without fair compensation.

Herbst in June spoke against potential land equity loss that could follow down-zoning.

"If we have to sell ... we want to sell it to the highest bidder," he said.

To stem farmland loss to development, he called for increased funding for agricultural preservation programs, which allow farmers to sell their land's development rights.

The land "is our pension," advisory board member Priscilla Harsh said in July. "A farmer should not be required to give up all his development options."

Harsh, a Smithsburg orchardist, and other farmers advocated including in the comprehensive plan development options and incentives to ease land value loss from down-zoning.

Such options and incentives were not included in the plan.

Herbst said advisory board's recommendation for a moratorium seems to conflict with individual board member's opposition to land use controls that could devalue farmland. But he said the moratorium is a "two-edged sword" that's needed to protect farmland from "rampant development" until new zoning laws are put into place.

"It was a tough decision that had to be made to preserve farmland," Ditto said. "It was not intended to divide the agricultural community."

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