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Forgotten Frontier: Montgomery County’s Agricultural Reserve

With all the focus on creating mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly communities, residents and stakeholders might be neglecting an important area of Montgomery County. In part one of a two-part series, we introduce the Agricultural Reserve, its significance, and present-day challenges.

If you have had the opportunity to mingle with members of the real estate/development community over the last several years, the chances are phrases like “smart growth,” “mixed-use,” and “live, work, play” have been frequently thrown into conversation. These ideas, as planning efforts to revitalize and strengthen the County’s urban hubs, surely will continue into the next decade and beyond.

However, incentivizing transit-oriented development throughout the County was not always the foremost priority. Over 50 years ago, when the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission (M-NCPPC) took on the General Plan for physical development in Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties – otherwise known as the “Wedges and Corridors” plan – managing suburban sprawl and preserving open space were the preeminent concerns.

The introductory remarks of the General Plan caution against the “extravagant ‘leap-frogging’ of development into the countryside and overemphasis on larger and larger residential lots waste the land.” A solution that would effectively preserve the County’s farmland was strongly desired. Hence, a few years later, in 1980, the Montgomery County Council made one of the most significant land use decisions in County history, and created what is known as the Agricultural Reserve.

The Agricultural Reserve, or “Ag Reserve,” consists of approximately 93,000 contiguous acres – almost a third of the County's land resources – of rural land
that is (primarily) in the western/northwestern portion of Montgomery County. Its accompanying master plan and zoning elements are specifically designed to protect farmland and agriculture. The Ag Reserve is nationally recognized as a signature example of land conservation. Just recently in 2017, the Montgomery County Planning Department was recognized with the APA Planning Landmark Award for the Ag Reserve's continued
success. Put simply, the Ag Reserve works.

The Ag Reserve not only functions to protect open space, but also helps to facilitate a robust farming economy. Here are some notable statistics that shed light on its viability:

  • The Ag Reserve helps to retain 500+ farms in Montgomery County.
  • Of the 93,000 acres in the Ag Reserve, 63,493 acres are devoted to farming.
  • The average farm size in the Ag Reserve is 118 acres…
  • ...which translates to $42 million in crop sales, and $6.5 million in livestock sales.

The County has implemented various tools to reinforce and nurture the Ag Reserve. For example, three primary zoning districts are utilized: (1) the Agricultural Reserve Zone (AR), which makes agriculture the preferred land use; (2) the Rural Zone (R), intended for a compatible mix of agricultural uses and low-density housing; and (3) the Rural Cluster Zone (RC), which shares a similar intent as the R zone, but offers more flexibility.

The Transfer of Development Rights (TDR) program is a conservation mechanism, which provides equity compensation to certain Ag Reserve landowners who transfer residential development potential into areas of the County that are better suited for growth. Another preservation tool is Montgomery County’s Building Lot Termination (BLT) program. Established by law in 2008, the BLT program is a type of easement that restricts residential, commercial, industrial, and other non-agricultural uses on an Ag Reserve property. Acquisition of Agriculture (continued from page 4) whole or partial BLTs is required for all optional method projects – those that typically seek more density and greater flexibility – in the County’s more intensive development zones.

While the Ag Reserve is well situated for continued success, it is not immune to new challenges. Some trends that would seem to implicate the Ag Reserve raise the following questions:

  • Should the County consider allowing other types of uses than are currently permitted in the Ag Reserve in order to attract new business and maintain pace with regional competitors?
  • In an age where long commutes and vehicular use are increasingly difficult and  environmentally damaging, are there ways to promote self-sufficient villages and small towns without compromising the Ag Reserve?
  • How would a second bridge over the Potomac River – one that would connect Montgomery and Loudoun County – impact the Ag Reserve?
  • Does the Ag Reserve have a role to play in helping to address Montgomery County’s ongoing housing crisis?

We will delve deeper into these questions and offer additional insights in the next Legal Update.

Chris Cohen is a land use attorney who helps developers, property owners, and  institutional clients secure zoning approvals in Maryland and Washington, DC. For more information, contact him at 301-657-0743 or cscohen@lerchearly.com.

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This content is for your information only and is not intended to constitute legal advice. Please consult your attorney before acting on any information contained here.

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