The wind at Poolesville’s Poplar Springs Animal Sanctuary was strong enough to carry away a large canopy. Speakers at an event Monday celebrating the 25th anniversary of Montgomery County’s 90,000-acre Agricultural Reserve reminded the farmers, students and other observers there that big open spaces — the kind that are subject to gusty wind — were exactly what they had come to celebrate.
The backdrop to the speakers’ podium was Poplar Springs’ red barn and lake, and behind them, across the Potomac River, cluster of high-rise apartment buildings in Loudoun County, Va. Loudoun has been embroiled in a battle about rapid development and preservation of open space.
“This is a wonderfully appropriate backdrop for what we’re doing because you simply look behind us … and it’s a clear choice of visions. What kind of a county do we want to be?” County Council President Tom Perez (D-5) said. “We have some big choices — about 14 stories high — in terms of big choices we could be making.”
Perez and Councilmember Mike Knapp (D-2) presented a proclamation congratulating farmers and planners on the anniversary of the Reserve — viewed nationally as a landmark of suburban open space preservation.
In 1980, the Montgomery County Council approved a master plan that created the agricultural reserve that now makes up almost one-third of the county. Development rules established in the 1970s had created a rural zoning of one house per five acres. The 1980 plan further limited that to one house per 25 acres and compensated land-owners who would no longer be able to develop their properties through a pioneering program of “Transferable Development Rights.” The landowners were awarded one TDR for each five undeveloped acres, and the TDRs could be sold to developers working in “TDR receiving zones” in denser downcounty areas, mostly around Metro and the I-270 corridor.
Residents and officials at the 25th anniversary celebration Monday praised the foresight of the planners who developed the Agricultural Reserve.
“People look to Montgomery County because we’ve been a leader in land preservation,” said Melanie Choukas-Bradley, education director at Celebrate Rural Montgomery, one of the sponsors of the event. “They look to see how we’ve done it.”
Speakers enumerated the benefits of maintaining the agricultural reserve, which they said is important for recreation, for the county’s economy, and most importantly for environmental preservation.
The agricultural reserve’s farms employ 10,000 people and contribute $252 million to the county’s economy, Choukas-Bradley said. While traditional dairy, wheat and soybean farms have dwindled in Montgomery County, they have been replaced by an increasing number of equestrian farms as well as newer concepts such as organic and community-based farms.
Others pointed out that the reserve serves as a “green lung” that limits pollution from the more developed parts of the Washington area and buffers the river to maintain an adequate, clean water supply.
The final SPEAKERS at the event were a Poolesville High School teacher and two students in the school’s Global Ecology Program, a magnet-like program that students enter as freshman and remain in for four years. Teacher Joyce Bailey said that the Agricultural Reserve provides an unrivaled outdoor classroom for environmental studies.
Students assembled a Power Point presentation on the Reserve as part of a senior project. They said that before enrolling in the Global Ecology Program, they didn’t understand the history or significance of the open spaces around their homes, and they joined county officials in the assertion that educating residents about the importance of the Agricultural Reserve is key to maintaining it.
“Ever since I was a little girl my parents have been taking me to Homestead Farms to pick pumpkins and the C&O Canal to ride bikes. I really always just took it for granted that all that land was there, and I really didn’t know why it was,” said Stacie Payne, a Poolesville senior. “And even at the beginning of this year before we started our project I didn’t know anything about the Ag Reserve, let alone that I lived in it. And unfortunately that’s pretty typical for students our age.”
Knapp echoed that sentiment.
“Quite honestly the last 25 years were probably the easy part. The next 25 years are going to be the real challenge, as Montgomery County continues to grow,” he said. “Our biggest challenge quite honestly is to let everybody else know that this is here.”