MS. REBECCA SHEIR
We move now from the literaliarly unusual -- is that even a word? Literaliarly? Anyhow, we move from the literaliarly unusual to the agriculturally unusual. More than 30 years ago, Montgomery County, Maryland did something rather different to protect what was left of its rural character.
MS. REBECCA SHEIR
It set aside a huge piece of land for agriculture. Over the years that land has become something of a model for suburban counties around the U.S. But with more people moving into suburban Maryland and demanding more housing, we wanted to know whether this outside the box experiment is still as popular as it once was. So environment reporter, Sabri Ben-Achour, went to check it out.
MR. SABRI BEN-ACHOUR
Greg Glenn is walking through his pasture at Rockland's Farm in Poolesville, Maryland.
MR. GREG GLENN
So this is our farm, it's 35 acres.
And the inhabitants are here to investigate.
The goats, they're forgers. They'll eat the thorny stuff that nobody likes. The pigs, they'll eat a lot of the broad leaf weeds, that sort of thing. Everyone paves a way for the next group and in the diversity of their manure, fertilizes the pasture basically.
Glenn's farm is only about 20 minutes from the Beltway and it's in what's known as the Ag Reserve. It's a broad section of Montgomery County, about a third of it, that's off limits to dense development.
People are buying fresh, buying local. People want organic, sustainable. So there's an incredible demand for this kind of stuff and what the reserve has to offer is that it's so close. So not only do you get your food picked that day that you can buy at the farmer's market or get delivered on the CSA but you can easily, after work, get in your car and visit that farm.
The reserve was created in 1980 at a time when suburban sprawl was just starting to fragment farming communities.
MR. CAL MURRAY
Farms were being chopped up.
Cal Murray is a planner with Montgomery County's planning department. He says the idea to limit development in 93,000 acres was more than just a way to keep farms intact. It was a way to prevent sprawl.
And there was a certain fiscal logic to this because it limited the extension of infrastructure, it limited leapfrog development partum and it limited roads, water and sewer extensions and it limited problems for school boards and emergency services.
And he says it's worked.
Absolutely, it has. I mean, there's a clear edge where the reserve stops and starts. If you imagined that part of development (unintelligible) county spread across the whole county. I think we'd have a mega-apolis where the traffic congestion would be far worse.
One of the major ways the county has limited development in the reserve has been through something called transferable development rights. Basically let's say a developer wants to build a high-rise in Rockville. Well, that developer has to buy that right from a farmer in the reserve.
A farmer can get tens of thousands of dollars this way, but can't use his or her land for anything but agriculture, ever. Around 75 percent of the reserve is protected by some type of easement like this.
Ben Alnut runs Homestead Farm in the Reserve. His family's been farming this area for almost 300 years. He says while the easement restrictions are protecting agriculture, the irony is that they're also limiting it.
MR. BEN ALNUT
Someone wants to build a grain elevator. Well, that's pretty much agricultural but it's not allowed because the way the laws are written.
Alnut also points out a challenge for attracting more small farmers.
We have all this agricultural land, where are farmers going to live?
Dividing lots is difficult where it's allowed and outside of the reserve there's only about four percent of the county's land that's vacant with 300,000 more people expected to arrive over the next 20 years. Already half of people who work in Montgomery County commute in from elsewhere says Steve Fuller, an economist at George Mason Center for Regional Analysis.
MR. STEVE FULLER
Restricting areas to low-density housing or to agricultural uses will become a much more serious constraint 10, 15, 20 years from now when the rest of the county is filled up.
Jim Cullen is director of the Urban Studies and Planning Program at the University of Maryland and he says there are indeed tradeoffs.
MR. JIM CULLEN
I mean, there are costs. There are things that you're sacrificing when you're tying up land that could be used for other purposes and one of the purposes is housing.
But Cullen says the county has plenty of other tools at its disposal to promote housing.
We shouldn’t just look at that reserve as the only supply of land that the county has for increased housing production.
New rules that require 15 percent of any new housing development to include affordable housing and increasingly the county's looking to build up rather than out. Murray with the planning department says that with the right management the county is far from filling.
I mean, if you look at Manhattan, Hong Kong, et cetera, I think we've got a long way to go.
And he says there are few New Yorkers who would begrudge the existence of Central Park. I'm Sabri Ben-Achour.
If you'd like to pay a visit to a nearby farm or learn about what Montgomery County is doing to promote affordable housing, check our website, metroconnection.org.
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