Thursday, September 15, 2005

Are you threatening me?

Everyone knows an ounce of land in Howard County is worth more than an ounce of gold (well, maybe not exactly, but it’s pretty close). Since the majority of undeveloped but developable land left in the county is in the “rural” west, the area has become a center for competing visions about what it should be: farms or houses.

The State of Maryland is threatening to cut funding to the county’s land preservation program if it doesn’t do something to stop the rapid loss of farms to development. Howard County, it should be noted, has one of the worst records for land preservation of any county in the state.

Like a good local government that relies on money from above (pennies from heaven?), it formed a committee to study the issue and floated some proposals, which immediately incensed land owners, who felt increased restrictions on development—in the form of decreased allowable density—amounted to stealing.

Accordingly, they hired a lawyer to issue threats, like this one:

"People are not going to wait around for the next blow to hit," Richard B. Talkin, whose clients include some of the largest developers in the state, told a citizens committee that is trying to forge a compromise on new zoning proposals for the western region.

Talkin, a member of the 19-member committee, said large-property owners will either develop their land or sell it for development rather than risk losing millions of dollars.

"People are going to commit because they are not going to sit around for the government to change the rules again," he said. "We are not going to have uncommitted property five years from now."

While I’m certainly sympathetic to landowners relying on their property to fund their retirement, having a pit bull attorney issue threats doesn’t seem like the best way to help one’s cause. At least one prominent landowner, Randy Nixon, had something sensible to say.

"There is a way to do it, but we just don't know the way," Randy Nixon, owner of Nixon's Farm, which is not a farm but about 130 acres from which a catering business operates, said after Monday's meeting. "We all want to preserve the Howard County way of life. To some extent, that way of life has already left us -- it's already gone. But to the extent that it still exists, we want to try to preserve it. ... There's a certain overarching belief that we should both maintain land values and preserve as much open space as we possibly can."

There’s hope yet, I suppose.

Unfortunately, I don’t have a concrete, well-articulated answer to this, but neither does anyone else. However, I’ll take a stab at it.

My approach would involve the transfer of development rights, perhaps through the creation web-based markets where land owners could buy and sell rights. Development, however, would only be permissible on certain parcels, namely those of poor agricultural or ecological value or those close to existing population centers. I’m not sure if the best way would be to restrict these development rights transfers to western Howard County, or make them exchangeable throughout the county. Either way, I would add a provision that requires landowners to hold a pre-determined minimum number of development rights before they could develop. This, it seems, would maximize the land available for preservation by restricting development to clustered spaces.

There’s a lot I haven’t thought through about this. But, there’s also a lot that others haven’t thought through either.

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