The New Frontier: Montgomery County’s Agricultural Reserve

In recent months, the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission (M-NCPPC) has placed a renewed focus on Montgomery County’s Agricultural Reserve, or “Ag Reserve.” In part two of a two-part series, we continue our discussion of this prized conservation area, and discuss how new economic opportunities, such as agritourism, could make the Ag Reserve a more dynamic region.

The days are shorter, the air is brisker, and snow is in the forecast. With the winter season upon us, perhaps you’re considering a trip out to a farmer’s market or finding the best sledding hill that Montgomery County has to offer. Perhaps that means a trip out to the Ag Reserve.

M-NCPPC would likely be enthused to hear of such expeditions. This type of farm-based, recreational excursion, otherwise known as “agritourism” or “Ag Tourism,” is trending across the United States, and the County believes the Ag Reserve to be an ideal location for it.

In part one, we alluded to the ongoing efforts of the Agritourism Study Advisory Committee (ASAC) that was formed by M-NCPPC in 2017. The ASAC is comprised of various stakeholders of the agricultural community, and its mission is to identify and assess opportunities and constraints for educational and tourism activities in the Ag Reserve.

The ASAC conducted extensive background research of Ag Tourism in other jurisdictions – as near as Frederick County, Maryland, and as far as Sonoma County, California – to gather an understanding of how other jurisdictions are responding to and managing the activities of a changing agricultural economy. This evaluation of best practices and regulatory issues has enabled the ASAC to conduct a study specific to the Ag Reserve, which it hopes to present to the Planning Board later this year. The study is rooted in the following goals:

  • Protect and preserve farming, farmland, and rural open space in the Agricultural Reserve.
  • Support existing and future agritourism activities through improved processes for agritourism businesses and promotional tools.
  • Support agritourism activities with a direct relationship to agriculture, to facilitate preservation of farming, farmland, and rural open space.
  • Increase awareness of the Ag Reserve’s assets, including education of agricultural practices and better wayfinding.
  • Provide inclusive and equitable access to the Ag Reserve.

To achieve these goals, the ASAC is refining a corresponding menu of potential solutions. One suggestion, for example, would exempt agricultural buildings used for agritourism from certain permit requirements, which would help facilitate Ag Tourism and incentivize entrepreneurial efforts. Another solution proposes a tiered approach for certain activities, such as equestrian events, that distinguishes those that can occur as a matter-of-right from those that require a more comprehensive review process (e.g., require a conditional use approval).

The ASAC recognizes that Ag Tourism allows for a balance between satisfying market demand and remaining true to the core, preservationist mission of the Ag Reserve. But are there other opportunities as amenable to achieving this balance, and therefore suitable for the Ag Reserve? To answer this question, we revisit the following questions from part one, and offer some brief insights:

Q: 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?

A: The County is already doing some of that. The ASAC is helping to create a definition for “agritourism” in the Zoning Ordinance, which would likely broaden the range of uses permitted in the Ag Reserve. Additionally, the CSX Railroad that traverses the Ag Reserve offers potential to accommodate complementary industrial uses along the railroad tracks that are currently not permitted.

Q: 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?

A: Yes. The town of Poolesville could serve as a model. Geographically confined, low-density, mixed-use development at appropriate crossroads can promote more self-sufficient communities and ensure that key Ag Reserve land remains protected.

Q: How would a second bridge over the Potomac River – one that would connect Montgomery and Loudoun counties – impact the Ag Reserve?

A: The road network of the Ag Reserve partially consists of Rustic Roads – historic and scenic roadways that require retention of certain physical features. Farming areas also depend on open land and an absence of major highway congestion. The design and location of another Potomac River bridge would need to account for these variables. A future assessment is required to judge whether these objectives can be satisfied while concomitantly enabling the regional economy to diversify and grow with a better, more sustainable transportation network.

Q: Does the Ag Reserve have a role to play in helping to address Montgomery County’s ongoing housing crisis?

A: The Ag Reserve’s residential potential is something the County intends to address with its update to the General Plan: Thrive Montgomery 2050. In low-density crossroads communities, opportunities exist to expand the range of housing stock without jeopardizing the essence of the Ag Reserve.

For now, the County’s goal of promoting Ag Tourism is coming to fruition. Moving forward, it will be interesting to see how the Ag Reserve can continue to preserve our County’s resources and simultaneously evolve to meet changing market demands.

Land Use Principal Robby Brewer edited this article. For more on the Montgomery County Ag Reserve, contact him at 301-657-0165 or [email protected].