Farm Community Opposes TDR Exemptions

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Farm Community Opposes TDR Exemptions

Leonardtown, MD - 3/14/2013

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By Dick Myers

Faith Bible Church in Oakville
Faith Bible Church in Oakville

What started out as an effort to help a church save money has turned into a buzz saw of controversy. Faith Bible Church in Oakville needed to expand to accommodate its growing congregation. But existing zoning law required them to purchase TDR’s, or Transfer of development Rights, in order to do it. That would have meant an outlay of considerable money that could have been used for the church’s community work.

A proposal was presented to the county commissioners by the Department of Land Use and Growth Management (LUGM) to exempt “public and semi-public” uses from the requirement to purchase TDR’s when the expansion exceeded the required Floor Area Ratio (FAR), the relationship between the size of the building and the size of the lot. The county attorney cautioned that any exemption could not just be for churches, but needed to be for a broader category of uses, to meet legal requirements.

The issue went to the planning commission which held public hearings on two nights. It caused the commission members considerable angst out of concern for changing the TDR program, which is intended to preserve agricultural lands and open spaces.

In the end, after months of grappling with the issue, the planners voted 4-3 to support a revised proposal that reduced the number of uses exempted and changing the name of those uses to “civic or institutional.” That would have pulled the exemption away from such uses as day-care centers, but would have continued to allow the exemption for churches and fire and rescue squads.

The proposal as amended was the subject of a contentious public hearing Tuesday by the county commissioners, who have the final say. The agricultural community opposed the changes. Jamie Raley, president of the 900-member St. Mary’s County Farm Bureau, said his organization voted to oppose the change at their Feb. 26 meeting. “This is not the time to be dismantling the TDR program,” he said, and adding that it would have a negative consequence on many farmers.

Joseph Wood of Mechanicsville, who served on a committee that reviewed comprehensive rezoning, said one of the goals of county planning is to maintain a sustainable agricultural industry.

George Baroniak, who served on the committee that developed the county’s TDR program, said the very issue that was being considered was given considerable airing by the committee and was rejected. “We put a lot of effort into this program.” He added, “We agreed that everyone should participate in the TDR program to make it work.”

Baroniak noted that Robert Jarboe, the former county commissioner who passed away two days earlier in a farm accident, also served on the committee and would have opposed the changes. A friend of Jarboe’s, Linda Vallandingham, sent a letter to the commissioners in opposition to the proposal.

County Attorney George Sparling said of the revision forwarded by the planning commission, “I have a lot of concern about the planning commission recommendation.” He said an unintended consequence of the proposal could be that it actually would prevent churches from using the exemption because it requires those exempted to be “available to the general public use.”

But Commissioner Daniel Morris (R: 2nd) said he didn’t know of any churches in the county that would prevent the general public from attending.

Commissioner Lawrence Jarboe (R: 3rd) said he believed there would be nothing to prevent a parishioner from donating TDR’s to their church. He asked Sparling if that parishioner could then get a tax credit for the donation. Sparling said he wasn’t a tax lawyer but his gut reaction was there would be no prohibition of that happening.

According to LUGM Director Phil Shire, in addition to Faith Bible Church, two other churches had expressed an interest in having the proposed FAR exemption.

The commissioners left the record open for ten days before making a decision.

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