Preserved farmland should stay as such

Kai Hagen

February 10, 2005

Something is amiss in Buckeystown, but the problem and the precedent it sets is a big as Frederick County itself.

Buckeystown is a small, historic town situated along the Monocacy River amid a productive and scenic agricultural landscape. The town is part of the Adamstown Planning Region. In 2001, the Frederick Board of County Commissioners adopted the updated Adamstown Region Plan, which reflects and reinforces the community's desire to preserve a greenbelt and keep most of the surrounding land zoned for agriculture.

In Frederick County, "the purpose of the agricultural district is to preserve productive agricultural land and the character and quality of the rural environment and to prevent urbanization where roads and other public facilities are scaled to meet only rural needs."

A short distance west of town, a handful of families live on a quiet stretch of a narrow country road. The surrounding land, zoned agricultural, is comprised of a mix of working farms and old fields, scattered woodlots and a few long-abandoned and scenic quarry ponds, where two meandering streams come together to form a larger stream with adjacent wetlands and abundant wildlife.

As the residents were preparing for the holidays, they learned that Sugarloaf Properties and Holston Brothers Inc. had applied for a "special exception" to "establish a landscape/nursery facility" on 25 acres shoehorned between their homes on one side and the Spirit Mountain Temple on the other.

Their initial reaction was that a nursery would be a good fit for the area, similar to one nearby, comprised mostly of acres of trees and shrubs grown for sale elsewhere.

According to the application, however, plans call for several large buildings (including a 4,500 square foot office building, a 6,000 square foot storage/shop, a 4,000 square foot mechanics shop, and 7,000 square foot materials storage buildings), above-ground gasoline and diesel containers, storage bins, overnight parking for 35 trucks and additional parking for employees and others, and all-night security lighting. Projections detailed 25 full-time employees on site and 100 or more employees off site coming and going.

Beyond that, the site would include a sizable snow removal business, with substantial salt storage, more parking, more trucks and traffic, and major activity at odd hours as required by snowstorms.

As for the "nursery," the plan included two or three acres of "seedlings planted area" at the far end of the property.

And most of this enterprise would be wrapped around the property owned by the Eternal Spring Association, which searched far and wide to find an ideal spot for a quiet countryside retreat.

The Board of Zoning Appeals heard the request Dec. 23. The case was last on the agenda, and didn't begin until 11 p.m. While the rest of the county was asleep in the wee hours of Christmas Eve, the board heard first from the applicant, before hearing the testimony of 10 neighbors and a few others, myself included, all in opposition to the application. Others who could not attend wrote letters or signed a petition opposing the request.

Focusing on the requirements that must be met for a special exception, the testimony included compelling arguments about how the proposed use is not "consistent with the purpose and intent of the Comprehensive Plan," that the nature and intensity and size of the operation would not "be in harmony with the appropriate and orderly development of the neighborhood in which it is located," that the roads providing access to the site are not "adequate to serve the site for the intended use," and other points of contention.

There was also detailed testimony from a Hood College professor of biology about the potential impact on streams and wetlands on and adjacent the property.

As strong as their arguments were, it is important to note that "greenhouses and nurseries" are listed as possible special exceptions in an ag district. Not on the list at all, there has been a precedent for blending smaller "landscape" operations into that designation. But there is no doubt that traditional greenhouses and nurseries were never meant to include the sort of industrial scale corporate landscaping and snow removal enterprise planned for this site.

But, incredibly, the Board of Zoning Appeals didn't see it that way, and approved the application, with a few conditions that do not significantly alter or reduce the effect on the community or the environment.

Two weeks ago, the board spent about two minutes deciding to deny the neighbor's request for reconsideration. Now the neighbors, having invested a lot of time and effort and money into the fight to preserve their community, are left hoping the Circuit Court will see that the emperor has no clothes, and apply the law accordingly.

To get in touch, e-mail Kai Hagen at