Protesting the Plan

9/1/2012 7:00 AM
By Michael Short Delaware Correspondent

Cecil County Farmers Fight State’s Land-Use Proposal

ELKTON, Md. — Local farmers wanted to make sure the Cecil County Commissioners got the point.

So, they staged a “tractorcade” around the county building on Tuesday, Aug. 21. More than 20 farm tractors slowly circled the building before farmers parked their tractors and went inside to tell the commissioners what they think of Maryland’s latest land-use planning efforts.

Maryland’s “PlanMaryland” effort is designed to promote what is often termed “smart growth.” It seeks to concentrate growth in areas where needed infrastructure like roads and sewer systems are located.

It’s intended to limit sprawl that gobbles up rural land. Supporters say it will help preserve farmland and open space while cutting costs and helping to protect the environment.

Many farmers, however, think the program will slash the value of their farmland dramatically. Rather than saving farmland, some argue that it could actually cause more farmland to be lost.

Some argue that it’s little more than a state power grab that takes local land use powers away from the counties.

The “PlanMaryland” effort involves placing land into one of four land-use planning tiers. Tier Four lands are intended to be largely rural and undeveloped. Development can still occur in Tier Four areas, but might have to do so without state funds for roads, schools, sewer systems or other infrastructure.

Farmers say the plan could drive the value of farmland down and give farmers few options.

“It really puts people between a rock and a hard place,” said Wayne Stafford, president of the Cecil County Farm Bureau.

The Farm Bureau staged the protest in order to raise awareness of their concerns.

“If they (the Maryland Department of Planning) think they can push you a foot, they will try for a foot and a half,” he said. “We decided to make a bold statement.”

Stafford said that without the option of development, property values will fall in Tier Four areas. With little chance land could be developed, farmers in those areas will be unable to sell their development rights.

“This is having a snowball effect,” he said.

In addition to losing land value and the opportunity to sell development rights, he said the change could make it difficult for farmers to have small businesses on their farms.

Such businesses might include a small meat shop, fresh produce business or agritourism venture.

“I want to preserve the land, believe me. But I want to be compensated for it,” said farmer Sam Willis. “Don’t legislate me into land preservation without compensation. ... For some of us, our property values have probably been cut in half anyway because of the economy.”

“It’s not that I want to see everything grow up in houses,” Stafford said.

“But if you want it preserved, then buy it,” he added.

Willis, who also serves on the Cecil County Farm Bureau’s board of directors, said the “tractorcade” was designed to get the attention of both the county commissioners and the public.

The purpose of the Aug. 21 meeting was to get public input on the issue. Cecil County, like Maryland’s other counties, is putting together a plan in response to “PlanMaryland” requirements. Those county plans will then be submitted to the state.

“Over the last 40 years, our consumption of land has grown at three times the rate of our population growth. ... Since 1950, we’ve lost 873,000 acres of farmland,” according to a written statement from Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley.

“PlanMaryland is our first strategic plan for long-term sustainability. It’s a road map to better help us accommodate the one million additional residents Maryland is projected to have by 2035, while at the same time better protecting the Chesapeake Bay and saving more than 300,000 acres of farmland and forest,” the governor said.

Bill Kilby, the president of the Cecil Land Trust and owner of Kilby Cream, said that the Land Trust is a nonprofit and “can’t get into the politics.”

He did, however, say the plan will force counties to focus their infrastructure spending in development areas.

Kilby said Cecil County has simply not been able to find enough money to fund needed infrastructure for both development areas and rural areas. “There’s no money for infrastructure at all. It just doesn’t exist.”

Willis is concerned about the amount of land that Cecil County may try to place into the Tier Four classification. “It’s a big chunk,” he said.

Stafford has urged the county to place the minimum amount of land into the Tier Four classification.

Willis and Stafford are also concerned the state may be trying to usurp local county land use control.

“It’s taking away private property rights,” Stafford said. “Land rights are being taken away.”

Asked for a worst-case scenario, Stafford said that some farmers may simply want to go elsewhere where they feel people are more supportive of farming.

“I look at people saying the heck with it. ... It just seems like we’re fighting against it (agriculture),” he said.

Another public comment session is scheduled for Sept. 4, with a vote by the Cecil County Board of Commissioners expected on Sept. 18, according to Willis and Stafford.

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