WOODBINE, MD. — Lou Breitenother's farm - 92 acres of picturesque, wheat-covered hills in one of the fastest-growing parts of Maryland - might as well be worthless.
Mr. Breitenother, who has been retired for some time now, doesn't have the strength to work the land himself. He can rent it, but that doesn't even compensate for property taxes, about $5,000 a year. Yet worst of all, he says, is that no one's interested in buying. The reason: the land is zoned for agriculture only, and cannot be developed.
Breitenother's predicament, and that of scores of others like him, is leading to a revolt here in Carroll County, a onetime farming region that is beginning to look more and more like a typical American suburb, complete with fast-food restaurants, grinding traffic, and golf courses.
The remaining farmers want to sell or develop their land, which in some instances could be worth millions of dollars. And some county officials are trying to help them do that. The state of Maryland, however, is determined to turn back urban sprawl.
The conflict, highlighted here in Woodbine, is being played out across America, as land-use planning is pitted against property rights. "What makes me the angriest are the people who want the farms to stay farms so they can drive by in their cars and say, 'Oh, that looks beautiful,' " says Breitenother's wife, Flo, a mild-mannered woman who runs a tidy house. "But really, farming just isn't in the cards for Carroll County."
Maryland is a national leader in fighting urban sprawl, through a program called Smart Growth that tries to manage new development while rejuvenating city centers. Advocates of Smart Growth say uncontrolled suburban development, which mushroomed in the '70s, is economically irresponsible, socially destructive, and environmentally harmful. Thirteen other states have similar comprehensive programs, and the list is growing.
No easy answers
Yet, as that movement gains momentum, so does the resistance. "This is one of the most important political and social issues we are facing at the start of the 21st century," says Constance Beaumont, the director of state and local policy for the National Trust for Historic Preservation in Washington. "There are no easy answers."
In Carroll County, officials have defiantly responded to the Smart Growth program by taking matters into their own hands, one small step at a time. In 1999, the county's three-person elected commission approved a zoning change that would allow a golfing community to be build on the 425-acre Rash brothers' farm, just across from the Breitenothers'. It was a symbolic decision that today is tied up in a lawsuit between private parties. More recently, the commission voted to move forward with development in the county's vast watershed area, which contains the state's primary source of drinking water, Liberty Reservoir.
Those decisions, pushed by Republicans, have infuriated Democratic Gov. Parris Glendening, an influential antisprawl crusader who chairs the National Governors Association.
Neither side shows signs of backing down. "I'm not going to let some politicians in [Annapolis] take away our legislative authority," says Carroll County Commissioner Donald Dell. "It's a matter of property rights - I don't think we're any different from any other county in the United States."
Elsewhere, a similar backlash is growing. In Oregon, an approved referendum requires states to pay landowners when they lose money because of property-use restrictions. In Arizona and Colorado, voters last year rejected broad measures that would allow the states to manage local development. Dairy farmers in New England are facing the same difficulties as the crop farmers in Carroll County.
In few places, however, has that conflict hit harder than in Maryland. "This is the only instance I know of where the state government is trying to come in and control local zoning issues," says Edward Primoff, who heads the Carroll County Landowners and Homeowners Association.
Apparently caught off guard by the Carroll County Commission, state officials are weighing a number of options for dealing with their maverick constituents. They acknowledge that zoning decisions are best left in the hands of county officials, but they also think the state should have a say in the process. There is speculation that they may sue.
"The [state] department of planning is permitted to intervene when the county's decisions have an environmental or economic impact," says Shelley Wasserman, the counsel to the Maryland Department of Planning, who has been reviewing state precedents to advise the governor.
Meanwhile, the farmers in Carroll County find themselves in an unusual position. Property values are steadily rising, but the ability to sell depends on zoning assignment. While for now the Breitenothers are stuck on a money-losing farm, the Rash farm across the street (or, as they say, across "the freedom line") can be sold for about $75,000 per acre.
Four decades on the farm
The Breitenothers moved here from Baltimore in 1958 and threw every penny they had into buying the land for $23,000. Back then, they say, Carroll County was much more rural, and hardly a popular destination. They were the only ones in the neighborhood with a telephone.
The land was originally zoned to permit an owner to build one house per acre. But that was changed to one house per 20 acres in 1978. The Breitenothers didn't think too much of it at the time - they were still strong, farming was still relatively lucrative, and there wasn't much interest in developing Carroll County.
Today, however, the climate has changed, and they sometimes feel as if they're the only ones who aren't allowed to develop their land. They follow zoning issues closely and have even joined the local landowners association. They support the Carroll County Commission and hope that one day the status of their land can be changed, as it was for the Rash farm. But they're not counting on it.
"When we were young, we gave all our strength to Carroll County to make it better," Mrs. Breitenother says.
"Now we need help, and we feel like the door is slammed in our faces. This is a growth area, but it's very hard on us now."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor