First Round of Rural Recommendations Move to Planning Commission

Hay bales

Recommendations for changes to Charles County’s zoning regulations that affect agricultural businesses will be brought before the county’s planning commission following a presentation before the Board of Charles County Commissioners last week.

The seven recommendations were proposed by the county’s ad hoc Rural Planning and Zoning Task Force, which met last year, and are supported by the county’s Department of Planning and Growth Management.

Task force members worked hard to devise new definitions and revise existing ones for agricultural terms that are used in the zoning regulations. The task force developed new or revised language for such crucial terminology as “agricultural operations,” “agritourism” and “ecotourism,” “farm alcohol production facilities,” and “forestry operations.”

“We completely support the recommendations [for the proposed definitions], which would broaden some of the uses [and] the economic viability of some of these industries, and the properties located within the county,” Jessica Andritz, the department’s acting deputy director, told the county commissioners during a briefing at last Tuesday’s open session.

The other proposed updates to the zoning regulations would clarify allowable aquaculture activities including seafood and shellfish processing; add agritourism and agricultural operations to the table of permissible uses; expand the definition of yard averaging to include front, side, and rear yards; and incorporate changes to the section on accessory uses and structures to allow agricultural exceptions.

Another eleven recommendations from the task force require additional study by PGM staff, including a proposal to limit the construction of small subdivisions in Agricultural Conservation and Rural Conservation zones to parcels that are no larger than 50 acres. The task force has argued that this would help minimize the impact on larger tracts of farmland and forest land. While PGM staff supports the reduction in the minimum parcel sizes, it held off on supporting an associated recommendation for allowing shared or community septic and water systems in such developments until it can conduct further studies in coordination with the Charles County Department of Health.

The task force also seeks to make it easier for farm owners to pass property to family members in order to encourage heirs to continue farming in the county. Without that, the task force warned, farming could eventually die out in Charles County altogether. PGM says it supports the recommendation in principle, but wants the zoning ordinance to clearly specify that such conveyances should be limited to families who intend to continue farming the land.

In addition to the changes being proposed to the county’s zoning regulations, one of the task force’s proposals has been taken up in Annapolis as well. Last month, Charles County’s delegation to the Maryland General Assembly introduced a pair of bills in the House of Delegates and the Senate that propose amending Maryland’s public safety code to add Charles County to the list of counties where property owners would be exempt from certain building code requirements for structures that have agritourism applications.

Current state law exempts 10 counties from requiring building permits for the conversion of existing buildings for agritourism uses, as long as the occupancy is limited to 200 people. The task force had argued that the change would encourage farm owners to establish agritourism businesses in the county.

The House bill had its first reading in the Environment and Transportation Committee on Friday and is scheduled for a hearing on Friday, March 20. The Senate bill will have its first reading before the Education, Health, and Environmental Affairs committee on Wednesday, March 4. As so-called “local courtesy” bills, both pieces of legislation are expected to sail through to passage without opposition.

Andritz told the commissioners that PGM staff would schedule a briefing before the planning commission to review the seven zoning amendments that it supports, and the planning commission will then schedule at least one public hearing to seek input on the proposals. Following the hearing, the planning commission will then make its recommendations to the county commissioners, who will in turn vote on whether to adopt some or all of the amendments into the zoning regulations.

At of press time, the public hearings before the planning commission have not been scheduled. TLR will continue to follow these and other related proposed changes to the county zoning ordinance and the state public safety code.