Friday, Jan 8–Farm Preservation Guidelines Inked

SNOW HILL – State-required language to preserve Worcester County’s farmland has been given the green light for inclusion in the Comprehensive Plan.

The Priority Preservation Area (PPA) element now required by Maryland law for all county comprehensive plans was approved by the Worcester County Commissioners this week.

The PPA describes how the county will continue to preserve farmland from residential or commercial development through zoning, easement purchase land preservation programs, and supporting agriculture.

According to staff, the PPA’s intent is to identify areas to target for preservation and offer a plan to protect 80 percent or more of those identified areas, ensuring those properties remain farm or forestry land.

“I think they’re all very consistent with things we’ve talked about many times,” said Ed Tudor, head of development review and permitting.

While the PPA drew little comment from county residents, some concerns were raised by the Maryland Department of Planning (MDP) and the Maryland Department of Agriculture (MDA) in a late November letter.

MDP and MDA, in a joint letter, singled out the provision in the new zoning code allowing six residential lots on agricultural land when clustered, instead of the five the landowner is otherwise restricted to. “While this would not greatly undermine the preservation program, it is a step backward and therefore we don’t understand the justification for it,” the letter, signed by Joseph Tassone, coordinator of MDP’s Agricultural Certification Program, and James Conrad, Executive Director of the Maryland Agricultural Land Foundation, reads.

The letter goes on to ask why the county does not require clustering with the five permitted residential lots, instead of allowing the extra lot.

The state then questioned the extent of the A-2, or agricultural commercial zone.

Transfer Development Rights (TDRs) also concerned state reviewers. TDRs in general are useful for land preservation, but the transfer of building rights onto a contiguous parcel, maxing out at 20 lots, should be reconsidered, according to state comments on the county’s farmland preservation program’s recent re-certification application. That proposal will create “exurban sprawl amid preserved land,” the state’s comments read.

The A-2 land designated in the recent Worcester County comprehensive rezoning should be used as actual TDRs receiving land, since it is usually adjacent to developed, state comments recommended.

Mixed-use areas with higher density could replace the 20-lot subdivisions, and both agricultural zones could be sending areas for building rights to be used outside of farmland, the state also commented.

The county gave little countenance to the state’s concerns, many of which echoed public comment made during the rezoning process.

The sixth lot is a bonus to the landowner for clustering the subdivided lots off the road, rather than placing each lot in a row along the road, Tudor said Tuesday morning.

“You protect more farmland by clustering than if you don’t,” said county attorney Sonny Bloxom.

“We looked at it as something that was necessary to try to protect some farmland,” Tudor said.

“We’re at six now? When do we go to 10?” asked Commissioner Louise Gulyas, who voted against accepting the PPA presented by staff.