Farmers’ Tractorcade Protests Cecil County Commissioners ‘Tier’ Maps, Property Rights Limits
About 20 tractors, in classic John Deere green and a few blue Fords, formed a political conga line on Route 40 Tuesday afternoon and circled the Cecil County administration building in Elkton, to protest a map adopted by a majority of County Commissioners that would sharply limit many farmers’ property rights.
It was the second consecutive day of repudiation for a so-called “tier” map adopted earlier this month by the Three Amigos faction of the Cecil County Commissioners—Diana Broomell (R-4), James Mullin (R-1) and Michael Dunn (R-3.) On Monday, the county Planning Commission rejected that proposal and instead will develop its own map, based upon the county’s Comprehensive Plan, that would still protect farm and rural areas from development but would not impose more restrictive limits advocated by the Three Amigos.
The tractorcade assembled at the old Wal-Mart site at Whitehall Road and proceeded east on Route 40, accompanied by Elkton town police and county Sheriff’s cars with flashing lights. Traffic was not delayed much as the single-file tractorcade occupied the right lane so motorists could pass. But Chesapeake Boulevard had a long backup as the tractors moved slowly toward the county building and began their circuit around the building.
County Commissioners were inside the county office building, holding a ‘citizens’ corner’ informal comment session that precedes the regular bi-weekly commissioners’ business meeting. But the tractorcade was clearly visible through the meeting room windows, and after farmers parked their vehicles, they came into the commissioners’ meeting room to give them an earful.
Broomell sat in silence, with a pained expression, as speaker after speaker excoriated the tiers proposal of which she has been the chief draftsman. Even one of her strongest political allies, Valerie Falcioni—appointed at Broomell’s behest to the county Ethics Commission—opposed the tiers map. “We have got to fight with all our might,” she said, against efforts to deprive citizens of their property rights. And she said it was “reprehensible” that property owners had not been specifically notified that their land was affected before the tiers map was adopted by the county commissioners.
Commissioners Robert Hodge (R-5) and Tari Moore (R-2) opposed the map endorsed by the Three Amigos faction. But that map, along with the Planning Commission draft, is slated for a public hearing in September. Changes could still be made before a final tiers plan is sent to the state by the end of the year.
The “tiers” concept ranks properties in four categories ranging from Tier 1—urbanized or town areas that are already or will be developed, with access to public water and sewer service—to Tier 4, the most restrictive category for rural and farm areas in which little if any development could occur. Tier 2 is a transitional area from the most developed Tier 1 areas while Tier 3 is a transitional area with limited development leading up to the no growth Tier 4.
Legislation passed by the General Assembly this year set up the four-tier categories but watered down many of the provisions that had been advocated by Gov. Martin O’Malley as part of his broad “Plan Maryland” initiative to limit development to protect the Chesapeake Bay. As a result, counties must submit a map outlining their tiers areas– but the state government does not have the authority to re-draw the map lines or impose direct sanctions if the map is less restrictive than state planners think it should be.
The lack of state clout over the tiers maps was reiterated last week at an informal meeting of the Cecil County Commissioners, at which two representatives of the state Department of Planning questioned even the aggressively anti-growth map supported by the Three Amigos. But the state officials conceded they were powerless to force the county to yield to their demands.
“So you say Cecil County is a bad boy,” Hodge told the state officials, indicating he was not particularly worried about such a label.
However, implicit in the state program is the threat of withholding grant funds from projects that are deemed in violation of the Plan Maryland goals.
For the tractorcade folks appearing before the Commissioners on Tuesday, the key points of contention are the shift of many transitional Tier 3 areas, as provided in the county’s Comprehensive Plan, into the most restrictive Tier 4 category. The farmers argued that the county should adopt the least restrictive interpretation because otherwise, the state would have ammunition to use against landowners seeking permits or other regulatory review of their lands.
Several speakers questioned why some Commissioners were seemingly doing the state’s dirty work when they did not have to do so.
Paula Gilley, a Realtor who also served on the county’s Comprehensive Plan review panel several years ago, said the tiers proposal amounted to “stealing” people’s land, without paying for it. She questioned why the Amigos’ map had “significantly more Tier 4” lands than the comprehensive plan identified as non-growth areas to be protected.
Wayne Stafford, president of the county Farm Bureau who organized the tractorcade protest, said the farmers were “just trying to make a statement.” He said the state Farm Bureau had “opposed tier mapping from the start” and that the county should “do the minimum that we can” and should have the tiers map reflect the existing comprehensive plan but no more.
He also warned that there would be a “snowball effect” if the commissioners went beyond the comprehensive plan and that in the future, citizens would be unwilling to serve on the citizens’ panel that drafted the comprehensive plan if their hard work was going to be ignored by a majority vote of three commissioners.
“If the Commissioners want to stand up to the state, we’ll stand with you,” Stafford said. “Do the minimum that the state requires and we’ll back you up on that.”
One of the problems facing farmers is that if their land is placed in Tier 4 its value will diminish, thus providing a lower collateral value if they are seeking loans to buy new equipment to keep their farms in productive operation.
Don Moore, of North East, said “stealing farmers’ property rights is not the answer” to keeping farm areas rural. Especially with the poor economy and drought conditions, “now is not the time to rob equity out of their land,” he said.
Bill Kreeger, of Rising Sun, said, “All my blood, sweat and my youth” is invested in his farm and he resented commissioners devaluing his land without offering any financial compensation. “You offer nothing in return for what I’ve spent my life doing,” he said.
Holly Willis, of North East, said she hoped to pass her farm on to the next generation of her family but the Tier 4 category would equate her land with “parkland” and other public lands owned by government. “You need to re-think your ideas,” she told the commissioners. “Do the minimum; don’t hurt us.”