The Howard County Department of Planning and Zoning is busy modifying sections of its proposed zoning amendments after the twitter-verse, the blogosphere, the old-fashioned chat rooms and email forums, not to mention the antiquated switchboards were set ablaze over the recent holiday weekend. At issue is Plan Howard 2030, the comprehensive zoning plan update, a 494-page tome. (Scroll down to the end of the article for the sections being worked on by DPZ this weekend.)

Bedlam began when former candidate (1994) for county executive, current land-use lawyer and small horse farm owner Susan Gray circulated a memo suggesting that the powers-that-be in county were trying to nefariously eliminate horses in the eastern portion of the county (such Laurel, Ellicott City, Savage, Scaggsville, Columbia), asserting that “These proposed regulations have not been discussed with the agricultural community, particularly those on small- to medium-sized farms who will be most affected.”

So, what is really going on?  Is there really a zoning plan that could affect horse owners in Howard County?

Yes, there really is such a proposal (not yet a plan). It is called Plan Howard 2030, and it is scheduled to be voted on by the County Council July 25, 2013.

How would the proposal affect county horse owners?

Within the current proposal, if you own any sizable parcel of land that is in the Rural Conservation District or the Rural Residential District, is assessed as agriculture for tax purposes, the proposal will have very little affect on you—if any affect at all. These Districts fall within what is generally known as Howard County’s “rural west.”

However, if you keep horses in the eastern portion of the county on a small parcel that is not ag-assessed for tax purposes, which is zoned residential and with residential use as its primary purpose, then the proposal—as it currently  stands—might affect you, or, if not you, the person to whom you sell your land.

There is a complex division of farming activities that are a “matter by right” versus an allowed use by exception or expressed numeration, or conditional or accessory use.  While ostensibly current horse owners on small acreage would be grandfathered in, it is still rather clear that the long-term consequences would be rather negative for the collective ag interests in the county (i.e., not just those keeping horses on small parcels, but those farmers on traditional ag land supplying hay, etc. to the small parcel horsekeepers).

Furthermore, in these proposed zoning amendments, DPZ has proposed instituting animal-to-acreage ratios and increased set-back requirements.

What are the ratios?

Here is the original language from the proposal (language that is currently undergoing modification):

Livestock on Residential Lots or Parcels
Only in residential districts where it is enumerated as an accessory use, livestock are permitted on residential lots or parcels subject to the criteria below.
A. The lot or parcel size shall be 3 acres or larger.
B. The single-family residence shall be in use as a dwelling.
C. The maximum number of livestock animals is one animal unit for each 1.5 acres of lot area.
D. The animal shelter location(s) shall comply with the animal shelter setback requirements in section 128.0.B.

(In the proposal, one horse is equivalent to one animal unit, which is consistent with the Maryland Department of Agriculture.)

Where did the ratios come from? Why did DPZ insert ratios?

After receiving the memo on July 3, The Equiery began reaching out to leadership in Howard County to research the background and validity of the concerns, and we immediately received a call from the Howard County Director of the Department of Planning and Zoning, Marsha McLaughlin, who explained that—as far as she was aware—the recommendations for the animal-to-acreage ratios came from Howard County Soil Conservation as a way for the county to be in compliance with the various watershed requirements for saving the Chesapeake Bay. When The Equiery explained that, regardless of what Soil Conservation may say, there is no equine industry agreement regarding ratios and the Maryland Horse Council does not support animal-to-acreage ratios, McLaughlin expressed a willingness to reconsider those sections of the proposal, but asked for more elucidation. The Equiery provided the following:

The Fallacy of Animal-to-Acreage Ratios
Mandating animal-to-acreage ratios is often seen as the solution to two challenges, or “problems:” animal health (in this case, horses) and land management (in this situation, nutrient management, run-off, watersheds and the health of the Bay).
Fallacy #1: Ratios help ensure healthy horses
Although not cited by specifically by DPZ as a reason for the current proposal, equine health is often cited as the rationale for acreage ratios, and someone will undoubtedly use equine health as a reason to support the proposal.
Animal-to-acreage ratios fail to ensure equine health for numerous reasons, including but not limited to the following:
  • acreage minimums are not pasture minimums;
  • even if the ratios were adjusted to be equine-to-pasture minimums, such ratios do not ensure the quality of the pastures, or that horses are actually turned out on those pastures;
  • not all horses or ponies should be allowed access to quality or lush pastures; in fact, turnout on lush pastures can actually be detrimental to the health of some horses and to many ponies;
  • horses can be kept fit and healthy without any turnout to quality pasture, as has been proven time and again in places as diverse as Europe, California and New York City, in which pasture is either severely limited or nonexistent. Indeed, Maryland is filled with well-run lesson stables with virtually no pasture but are healthy, often located in suburban neighborhoods, and filled with fit and healthy horses and ponies serving the surrounding communities.
There is ample professional and scientific evidence of all of the above.
The only thing that can insure healthy horses is proper animal husbandry/equine management, and that proper management can only be determined on a case-by-case basis by management, and involves a balanced evaluation of the needs of the equine (feed, forage and exercise requirements for that particular horse or pony based on numerous factors, including but not limited to, training and exercise levels) and of the facility (pasture, turnout options, shelter options, quality of available forage, weather, soil, etc.).
So how can a government entity ensure that horses are healthy and properly cared for? By enforcing the existing Maryland laws concerning the minimum standards of care for equine.
Fallacy #2: Ratios ensure proper land management
Concern about the nutrient impact and runoff of small equine operations has been cited as a justification for animal-to-acreage ratios, but such ratios no more ensure the health of the Bay than they do the health of the horse, for reasons which include (but are not limited to) the following:
  • acreage ratios are not pasture ratios
  • neither acreage or pasture ratios would guarantee growth of forage;
  • land could still be compacted, dirt lots, choked with old, rotting round bales and covered in manure;

The University of Maryland’s Dr. Amy Burk also provided Howard County DPZ with an excellent overview of equine-to-acreage ratios, which The Equiery will post later today.

Defining Farming and Farming Activities

More troubling, and less easily solved, is DPZ’s attempt to change the definition of agriculture and farming in Howard County, specifically by defining a farm as “A lot or parcel principally used for farming, WHICH RECEIVES THE AGRICULTURAL USE ASSESSMENT FOR TAX PURPOSES, IN ACCORDANCE WITH COMAR 18.02.03.” (Remember, the language that appears in all upper case is the proposed amendment.)

Nowhere does the Maryland Department of Agriculture define agriculture or farming as an activity that can only take place on land that is ag-assessed for tax purposes, and frankly, it seems a rather specious way to define agriculture, and would seem to have the potential to create a wide variety of  “chicken and the egg” riddles: which comes first, ag tax assessment, or ag activity? Is an ag activity prohibited until the ag tax assessment is achieved? Or is the ag tax assessment withheld until such time as the ag activity is actually happening?

The motivations for changing the definition of farming in this Zoning Proposal are less easy to discern, and the consequences of changing the definition could be much more severe on Howard County’s ag economy.

The zoning proposal also contains restrictions on lesson stables and increased set-back restrictions for run-ins, barns and arenas (see below for the specific Q&A with DPZ).

What is the potential impact? Or how big an issue is this in Howard County?

In the conversation with The Equiery on July 3, Director McLaughlin pointed out that these changes would really only affect the eastern portion of the county, and that most of the horses are in the western portion.  We provided statistics from The Equiery’s database, which includes over 1,600 horse people located throughout the county, covering the areas known as (but not limited to) Laurel, Scaggsville, Fulton, Savage, Jessup, Columbia, Ellicott City, Elkridge…areas not commonly thought of as in the “rural west.”

Hay-producing farmers in the rural west depend on those small farms for business. Often, because those farms do have limited pasture, owners supplement with more hay than do the large horse farm owners. Likewise, the tractor supply stores, feed stores and tack stores depend as much, if not more, on those horse owners in the eastern portion of the county as they do on those in the county’s “rural west.” Then there is the trickle-down impact on vets, farriers and other equine service industries if the number of horses in the east and the nonrural west are reduced.

The Law of Unintended Consequences

Experience in other jurisdictions has shown that if owning horses becomes so onerous as to become impractical, it is abandoned. This can have a negative impact on the county’s land values, the county’s ag economy, and the health of the watershed.

But there is also the potential “unintended consequences” to the Bay by reducing or eliminating the ability of three- and five-acre homeowners in eastern Howard County to have horses: if it becomes too onerous (due to zoning restrictions) to maintain horses, what will be the homeowners’ alternative? Most likely, those pastures will become lush lawns, and there is ample scientific evidence to show that swaths of lush, fertilized lawns have a greater negative impact to the watershed than do properly maintained pastures. So the county’s attempt to have a healthier watershed by making it more difficult to have horses on three- and five-acre lots may actually, in the long run, backfire.

Is it true that the Howard County tried to pass these without input from the community?

The email alert circulated last week by the Maryland Horse Council’s Howard County Forum stated: “These proposed regulations have not  been discussed with the agricultural community, particularly those on small- to medium-sized farms who will be most affected.” Much umbrage followed.  But is it true? Well, not really.

According to Howie Feaga, owner of Merry Acres (formerly a dairy farm, now a horse farm) and the president of the Howard County Farm Bureau, representatives from DPZ met with HCFB and the Howard County Agricultural Land Preservation Board several times in February and March. He admits that the language requiring ag tax assessment as a prerequisite for farming did not ping their radar, nor did the acreage ratios, because all of the members of the Farm Bureau all tend to be operators of larger parcels, and so are not affected by either the ratios or the ag tax assessment.

[Sidebar note: The Equiery sees this as a sign that more small-parcel horsekeepers need to be members of and active with the Farm Bureau, as the HCFB is a membership-driven organization, and can only represent the interests of small-parcel horsekeepers if those horsekeepers join Farm Bureau. Full disclosure: The Equiery publisher served on the Farm Bureau Board of Directors about ten years ago.]

Likewise not accurate is the implied assertion that these zoning proposals were being rushed through. The proposal was originally released on March 7, 2013, with hearings before the Planning Board held on March 27 and April 8, followed by County Council hearings.

So we, the equestrian community, did have ample time to be involved, but, as is typical of horse people, we tend to stick our heads in the sand and then holler when our toe gets bitten that we didn’t see it coming. The only reason why we don’t see these things coming is because we refuse to look and be involved, and so we only have ourselves to blame.

Regardless, here we are. Susan Gray did read the zoning proposal; the zoning proposal does have problems in it for the equestrian community, and Susan did alert the community. And DPZ, despite the 11th hour, is being very responsive to the concerns of the community.

What’s next?

On Tuesday, July 9, Susan Gray hosted a talking session for residents and others who were concerned about the issue. From that meeting, a grassroots event was organized; a “Rally for Small Howard County Farms” will be held on Tuesday, July 16 at 6 p.m. in front of the George Howard Building, 3430 Courthouse Drive, Ellicott City, MD 21043.  The memo: If possible, wear a green shirt to show our solidarity and bring 8 X 11 pictures of your farm animals for display by your family members; children are especially welcome.

 

On Thursday, July 11, The Equiery asked Susan Gray specifically what protestors would like to see changed in the zoning proposal. She said a committee would be working on that over the weekend.

Meanwhile, DPZ Director McLaughlin assured The Equiery that DPZ was more than willing to modify the proposed zoning amends to remedy the concerns of the small-parcel livestock keepers, and she provided the following written answers, on the evening of July 11, in response to The Equiery’s questions.

EQUIERY: What is the purpose of making ag tax assessment a prerequisite for being considered a farm? Would DPZ consider eliminating this request? 

MCLAUGHLIN: We are preparing an amendment to eliminate the tax assessment from the definition of farming, so income being generated by the farm will no longer be considered relevant. However, we would still propose to keep the minimum size of three acres as part of the definition. The intent is to liberalize uses allowed on farms and some farming practices may not be appropriate on lots smaller than 3 acres.

EQUIERY: Would DPZ consider eliminating livestock as an accessory use on residential land in Rural Conservation and Rural Residential Zones and in parts of the eastern portion of the county on lots three acres and larger (current language requires horses to be an enumerate use), allowing livestock as a matter of right, as it has been?

MCLAUGHLIN: The current, longstanding regulation allows farming as a permitted use in the RC and RR zones, as well as in residential districts in the eastern part of the county, with the exception that a lot of less than 40,000 sq. ft. can’t keep livestock and may not keep fowl other than for the normal use of the family residing on the lot. We had proposed to delete this language, but will instead retain it.

However, the list of accessory uses in all of these districts allows residential chicken keeping and livestock on residential lots or parcels subject to requirements in Section 128.0.D.  We will make several revisions to Section 128.0.D.9 Livestock on Residential Parcels.

  • These rules will only apply to properties smaller than three acres (since farms will be defined as three acres or more).
  • We will change the proposed three acre minimum parcel size back to 40,000 sq. ft.
  • We will require one acre for one animal unit (instead of 1.5 acres). However, we will add language allowing a property owner to have less than one acre per animal unit if they collaborate with the Howard County Soil Conservation Service on a conservation plan to ensure proper pasture and nutrient management.
  • Finally, we will add cattle and pigs to the definition of animal units.

We aren’t proposing any changes to Section 128.0.D.8, which allows chicken keeping on lots as small as 10,000 sq. ft.

EQUIERY: Current language defines Riding Academies and Stables as a conditional use in Rural Conservation and Rural Residential Districts; the proposed language would permit those activities as an accessory use to farming (with a variety of conditions). Yet the Maryland Department of Agriculture considers Riding Academies and Stables to be an ordinary agricultural activity. This philosophy has trickled down to a variety of programs that come under MDA’s administration, including but not limited to the the Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Foundation: “Normal equine activities typical of horse farms…are considered by MALPF as agricultural activities appropriate to MALPF properties.” Such MALPF properties do not even need MALPF approval to operate those ag-related activities. Would DPZ consider repositioning such activities as “matter of right,” i.e., allow for the ability to operate a riding stable or academy on residential property falling within the Rural Conservation and Rural Residential Districts?

 MCLAUGHLIN: The definition of farming includes “breeding, raising, training, boarding and general care of livestock… for sport or show purposes, as pets or for recreation.”  These are all permitted by right. The current longstanding regulations require a conditional use for Riding Academies and Stables. We believe this is not necessary and moved this use to be treated as an accessory use, subject to Section 128.0.I.8. These are the same provisions as what had been previously required for the conditional use, but would only require documentation so DPZ can issue a permit, rather than the currently more lengthy and expensive conditional use process. Our intent is to make it easier to be approved. If you have specific concerns about the criteria, which are intended to protect neighbors, let me know.

EQUIERY: Given that animal-to-acreage ratios do not and cannot ensure proper land management or animal husbandry, would DPZ consider eliminating all such ratios in the Plan Howard 2030 Zoning Amendments?  If DPZ is not going to eliminate the ratios, what ratios are you considering requesting, and for what purpose will the ratios be intended? 

MCLAUGHLIN: This is mostly addressed in the second question above. The intent is to avoid conflicts with neighbors and to promote good management practices.

EQUIERY: If the concern is the impact on the soil and watershed that happens by horses on three- and five-acre zoned lots, why not require a soil conservation plan of some sort rather than ban or unreasonably restrict the number of horses allowed? 

MCLAUGHLIN: Agree, that is our intent with these revisions.

EQUIERY: Would DPZ consider dropping the requested setbacks for stables, indoor and outdoor arenas and other accessory, ag-related buildings?

MCLAUGHLIN: The existing language in Section 128.0.A.4 requires 200 ft from all animal shelters (other than apiaries) to homes on adjoining lots, not just stables and arenas. We’ve proposed some refinements to the language to exempt household pets and chicken shelters. We get a lot of complaints from residential neighbors about odor, noise, traffic, etc. Our goal is to try to find a balance between competing concerns. Do you have suggestions for specific revisions?

There have also been concerns expressed about setbacks for fences. These are different than for other types of structures and are specified in Section 128.A.9. Open fences five feet or less in height are exempt from setbacks.  

EQUIERY: Who will be helping to craft the revised language?

MCLAUGHLIN: DPZ will draft the proposed amendments, but we’d be happy to have comments as soon as we have the language.

EQUIERY: When will a revised language be available?

MCLAUGHLIN: I hope by Monday.

EQUIERY: How will the revised language be distributed?

MCLAUGHLIN:  I will send it to you and would be happy to have your help in distributing.

EQUIERY: Will there be a hearing specifically for ag-related sections of the proposed zoning amendments?

MCLAUGHLIN:  I don’t think the Council anticipates holding more hearings, but they will accept testimony up until they are scheduled to vote on July 25.

EQUIERY: Will any or all of this be able to be accomplished prior to the July 25 Special Session?

MCLAUGHLIN: I certainly hope so.

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Stay Tuned!

As soon as DPZ’s revised proposal for zoning amendments applicable to horsekeeping on small parcels is available, The Equiery will make the changes available to our readers on equiery.com.

In the meantime, please post your thoughts below or email them to editor@equiery.com.