Proposed Code Amendment on Farmland Debated

SNOW HILL- A proposed zoning code change to allow farm owners an extra two residential lots for family members, in addition to the five lots already allowed to be subdivided from farm land, did not see much support from elected officials during Tuesday’s comprehensive rezoning work session and is slated to be considered in the future as a text amendment.

Commissioner Virgil Shockley, a farmer himself and widely regarded as representing farmers throughout the county whatever the district, proposed the additional two lots for immediate family members to allow farms to stay in the family.

He was prompted to suggest the change by a woman who testified at the June public hearing on the rezoning, asking that the laws be changed so she can give her grandson a lot on her farm to build a home. The woman who testified had already subdivided and sold five lots as permitted under the law.

This change would allow family farms to continue, as often the children of farmers move away, but the grandchildren want to take up farming, according to Shockley.

Shockley said he realizes that Worcester County has preserved its agricultural character through the five lot limit on farm subdivisions, but pointed to the 1,800 acres of agricultural zoning in the 2006 Comprehensive Plan listed for future growth and zoning as residential land.

Shockley’s idea is to allow two lots on farmland to be sold to immediate family members for $1. The site must stay in the family for ten years before it can be sold or the owner would have to pay a penalty, perhaps five or ten percent of the selling price of the house.

“You probably won’t get 75 at best in the next ten years but what you will get are grandkids who will have the opportunity to stay on the farm and actually live there,” Shockley said.

His idea appeared to have some support from his colleagues, at least conceptually.

“You paint a wonderful picture and I wish it would be so and stay that way,” said Commissioner Judy Boggs.

However, divorce, death, or foreclosure could test the intent of the extra two lots, which could be sold anyway after ten years, Boggs pointed out. The time limit could be increased to 15 years, Shockley said.

Commission president Louise Gulyas reminded Shockley of the first term they each served, at the same time, when there was a “knockdown drag out” fight over increasing the three lots on farmland to five, and that Shockley was for more than five then.

“The reason I wanted more than five is exactly the reason now,” Shockley said.

Adding two more lots would open farms to development, Gulyas felt.

“This is wrong, Virgil,” she said. “It’s just the wrong thing to do if we are supporting agriculture”.

The county relies on tourism, forestry, and agriculture, Gulyas said.

“If we don’t protect it now, when my grandchildren are grown there’ll be nothing here,”said Gulyas.

Shockley remained adamant about the proposed change, suggesting farming could go away if families aren’t allowed the additional two lots.

“If you don’t give them these lots, there’ll be nobody to farm,” he said.

Farmers have to think ahead, according to Boggs, when subdividing the five allowed lots.

“This should not be tampered with now,” said Gulyas.

Action on the need to keep farms going has been pushed off for years, Shockley said. Gulyas reminded him of the potetial ecological impact of adding more residential lots on farm land.

“The environmental people will have a heart attack if you do this,” Gulyas said.

One option for farmers who have subdivided out their five lots but who want a family member on the farm is a mobile home, said staffer Ed Tudor.

“I don’t want to open things up,” said Shockley. “Farmland is farmland. They’re not making any more of it.”

The commissioners voiced concern the farmland could be further subdivided in the future. In 40 years, what if someone says nine lots, not seven? county attorney Sonny Bloxom wondered.

The commissioners have already set up the county to lose 1,800 acres of farmland to house an expected 20,000 people moving into the county, Shockley said. Those growth zones are centered around the towns, Bloxom said.

Shockley said he did not want to hold up the vote on the Comprehensive Rezoning. He then made a motion to allow agricultural landowners to subdivide off two lots for family in addition to the five permitted now. His motion died for lack of a second.

“You’re talking about something that’s such a monumental change in philosophy and the zoning code,” said Bloxom. “It really goes against the Comprehensive Plan. You’d have to go back through almost the entire process.”

County administrator Gerry Mason suggested approaching the idea through a later text amendment, which would give county staff time to work up some ideas.