So what are the challenges to the Ag Reserve?
The reasonable question is sometimes asked: so if the Ag Reserve has been master planned and zoned to protect farms and open space – where is the challenge? We wish it were that airtight. Look at the satellite image above. It tells a story of the burgeoning growth in the Washington Metropolitan region and how it can, absent proper planning and protection, sprawl outward, resulting in great cost both in dollars and environmental degradation. Unfortunately not every jurisdiction thought to create corridors for growth and wedges for preservation – The pressure on the Reserve in the face of those planning failures, grows. And, the fact is that Montgomery County has its own growing pains and troubling memory loss with regard to the Reserve and its important purpose. To keep this answer as brief as possible. Here’s the top ten threats to the Reserve:
1. Fragmentation due to loss of farmland and open space to suburban style development and industrial uses: witness the suburbanized clusters on Peachtree Road and the now approved housing subdivision “Barnesville Oaks” development on Montgomery’s last largest farm parcel.
2. Large scale private institutional facilities: The continuing saga of Global Mission Church and the recent jaw dropping decision to allow a mega church on rural Emory Church Road in Olney provide a chilling reminder that local governments are shying away from their responsibility to uphold master plans and zoning regulations. There seems to be the false notion that religious freedom trumps public policy including health and safety laws. Local governments are reacting out of fear of lawsuit rather than sound policy and adherence to the law.
3. Zoning changes by zoning text amendments: There are those within the local government who seek to add land uses, landscape contractors for example, to the list of permitted uses that do not require review process (special exception) in the Reserve. This would result in the addition of industry that is neither supportive of farming nor open space preservation and that may drive the cost of Reserve acreage further upward and out of the hands of those who seek to farm here. This effort, ostensibly geared toward job creation, conflicts with ongoing and successful efforts to expand local food production and ag sector employment opportunities in the Reserve.
4. The push for a Potomac bridge and highway crossing: Virgina, with support from development proponents and lobbyists in Maryland, has met with Maryland’s Governor and continues to press for this boondoggle of a project that would split open the Reserve and promote sprawl development. Our best defense is a Reserve that has been secured, galvanized, against such a violation through perpetual easements such as Maryland Environmental Trust and solid public and governmental support. Moreover, the strength of our agricultural sector provides solid argument against this ill conceived proposal.
5. Loss of farmers: The average age of Montgomery County farmers is 59. While there are family farms that have groomed a next generation of producers, a number do not. We need to do more to help the next generation of producers to get growing.
6. Skyrocketing farmland cost: this is the number one challenge that new and expanding producers cite that prevents them from growing here in Montgomery County. It is why we launched LandLink with help from farmer Shannon Varley from Bella Terra Farm.
7. Loss of Community Resources: The Reserve saves the County tax revenue. Reserve communities take very little of each dollar of tax revenue collected – less than $.75 compared to more that twice that to support the communities elsewhere in the County. Yet, when the economy tanked- savings were quickly sought via closure of the Reserve’s rural schools (Monocacy Elementary in Barnesville to start) and cutbacks to Ag Services. To survive and grow, we must ensure that the necessary resources including schools, groundwater, farming support programs, ag related businesses also thrive.
8. Spot Zoning by Special Benefit Permits: Despite the tax payer assisted creation of the large Germantown sports complex, various sporting associations conduct massive regional events on Reserve farmland. We are told that farms fields are less expensive. Maybe. But it really is spot zoning- providing for large scale recreational facilities that are not allowed in the Reserve and presenting conflict with the primary land use: farming. Yet, the political pressure to look the other way apparently is great.
9. Sand Mound Septic Systems: These systems were intended only to be allowed for failing traditional septic or for lots for farmers’ children, with the purpose of ensuring the continuation of the family farm. Loopholes have allowed for mansions with mounds that effectively remove land from farming opportunity and create conflict with neighboring farming operations. 2012 should be the year that this is properly addressed and corrected.
10. Lack of Public and Governmental understanding of the Reserve: Much effort is needed to educate the region about the critical importance of preserving the Reserve and, more importantly, expanding its role in our local food system. We are working to put together a “library” of resources that will address this challenge.