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The Sprawl Penalty: Weak Zoning Laws Hurt Value of Farmland

SprawlBayProgramToo much freedom for developers hurts real-estate values.

Contrary to claims that laws passed to control suburban sprawl depress the price of farmland, a state analysis of sales figures shows that farms tend to be more valuable in counties that have more protective zoning laws, according to the Maryland Department of Planning.

Maryland Planning Secretary Richard Hall testified to this trend yesterday in front of a state senate committee that is discussing the results of a 2012 anti-sprawl law called the Sustainable Growth and Agricultural Preservation Act.

“One thing we’ve heard is that we’re going to stop growth....  That is not true,” Hall told the committee.  “We like good growth. What we are trying to do is limit growth of major subdivisions on septic systems in the rural parts of the state.”

The law –- which is now under attack by lawmakers trying to repeal it --  requires counties to set aside areas for future development, and other areas for the preservation of farmland and forests.  In the protected areas, developers could not build large new subdivisions with septic tanks, an old fashioned waste control system that pollutes more than wastewater treatment plants.

The intent of the law is to protect about 100,000 acres of forests and farms in Maryland from development, Hall told the senate Education, Health, and Environmental Affairs Committee. The law is also meant to prevent the installation of about 50,000 septic tanks, and prevent about 1.1 million pounds of nitrogen pollution from seeping into  Chesapeake Bay tributaries by 2035,  Hall said.  Because the law restricts the use of septic tanks, it is sometimes called the "septic bill."

So far, eight jurisdictions in the state -- Baltimore, Harford, Montgomery, Prince George's, Garrett, Talbot, and Kent counties, as well as Baltimore City -- have complied with the 2012 law by submitting maps to the state that set aside the right amounts of land for growth and protection.  But two counties, Cecil and Frederick, have not complied with the law, because their maps do not set aside enough farmland for preservation, Hall said. 

"They basically have not only ignored the law, they have thumbed their noses at the state," said state Senator Paul Pinsky of Prince George's County, co-chair of the environmental subcommittee.

State Senator Karen Montgomery, of Montgomery County, asked Hall whether the state planning office has any way to force counties to follow the 2012 law.  "You have no absolutely no power of enforcement, is that the case?"

Hall replied: "The Department of Planning does not have the power of enforcement.  We just have the power of comment."

Mongtomery added: "So there is no carrot and stick available, because there is no stick. If it were so deemed by the legislative body, would you see that a stick would be helpful?"

Hall replied:  "I am hopeful that these  two counties will change their maps." He added that Governor O'Malley's Administration is discussing what, if anything, can be done to nudge the counties to follow the law and preserve more rural lands.

Hall told the senate committee that he frequently hears from critics of the 2012 law that it "will devalue rural lands.”  Instead, real estate figures numbers examined by the Maryland Department of Planning show that the opposite is more common: planning laws generally enhance the real-estate values of agricultural land, Hall said.

AG Land chartAs evidence, the Maryland Department of Planning presented legislators with sales data in three pairs of adjacent counties with different levels of zoning protections for rural lands. The numbers contrasted Baltimore County, which has strong zoning laws to protect farms, with adjacent Harford County, which has relatively weak farmland protections, according to the state agency. Farmland in Baltimore County (even though it is harder to subdivide) sells for, on average, $11,488 per acre, while farmland in Harford County (easier to subdivide) sells for $8,353 per acre, according to the state figures.

Farmland in Kent County (which has relatively strong zoning laws) sells for $12,533 per acre, while in adjacent Queen Anne’s County (with weaker laws), farmland sells for $10,988 per acre on average.

Farmland in Worcester County (which has relatively strong zoning laws) sells for an average of $8,276 an acre, while farmland in adjacent Wicomico County (with weaker laws) sells for $6,810 per acre, according to the state figures.

The bottom line:  There is no evidence that protecting farmland from being cut up for  housing developments hurts the local economy –- in fact, smart planning like this tends to boost real-estate values, Hall said.

Moreover, poorly planned growth tends to drag down local governments, by requiring that excessive amounts of taxpayer money be spent on roads and other infrastructure.

“These kinds of large developments on septic systems cost a lot more money to serve over time – whether it’s roads, or other services,” Hall said.  “And those septic systems over time will fail…  Your average household on a septic system pollutes 10 times more" than a house on a sewer system, he said.

This pollution really matters.  To comply with pollution limits created by EPA, the Chesapeake Bay region states have created blueprints to significantly reduce pollution by 2025.  Maryland’s clean water blueprint requires that nitrogen pollution from septic systems and stormwater be reduced by about 25 percent (or 3 million pounds) over the next 12 years.

While the Bay region states have been making some progress in reducing pollution, development is the only major source of pollution that has been increasing. 

By Tom Pelton

Chesapeake Bay Foundation


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Development in the AC zones in Charles County continues to proliferate while at the same time property taxes rise and property values decline...

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