This is the third time I have been invited to speak at this conference. Since I am not an historian, I can only conclude that it is because I have become a relic of historical interest. The real interest of the day is the 40th anniversary of our Agricultural Reserve. There seems to be general agreement that this has been a good thing. But 40 years is a short time and as some great historian must have responded when asked if ancient Athens contributed more to civilization than Rome: “It’s too soon to tell.”
Therefore, with apologies to Edward Bellamy, let’s indulge in a thought experiment. Join me at an overlook on Sugarloaf Mountain in Looking Backward at the Agricultural Reserve in 2080. I have been sitting there on a boulder watching over the Agricultural Reserve for some 50 years after being dipped in bronze by the Montgomery Countryside Alliance.
Although it is a great viewpoint, I had not actually seen much because I was clinically dead. Fortunately, they forgot to turn off my pacemaker, the bronze was cheap and disintegrated when a band of wandering historians tossed a rock at the starlings roosting on me. Once we recovered our mutual shock, I implored my rescuers to help me understand what had happened to the landscape that lay before us. Luckily, they were able to do so because the Montgomery Historical Society’s Agricultural Reserve Living History Research Project initiated in 2020 produced a series of well-researched reports on the Reserve’s civic and social organizations, villages, political battles, changes in farming, economy, population, and culture.
The air was clear and clean. I could see the Washington Monument and the capitol and the towers of Loudoun County across the Potomac. The rooftops below glistened in the sunlight. All buildings in the county now had solar panels and were organized into smart microgrids. Homes and buildings in the sanitary district were heated and cooled by thermal systems connected to the sewer. In the twenties and thirties there had been several ill-considered efforts to use large areas of the Reserve to generate solar power, they were defeated as people realized it made little sense to deface a great resource for carbon sequestration when there were better alternatives, and calling thousands of impervious panels a solar farm didn’t make them agriculture. The worst idea, to devote 30,000 acres to a solar complex, was referred to an advisory committee, but all the members died before it could reach consensus. Instead of using farmland, the old high voltage powerline corridors were used to replace the overhead lines and towers with solar power.
Fossil fuels were banned after 2050. The old Dickerson power plant had become an art gallery operated by Historic Medley. Climate change reduced winter to a few weeks. Rainfall increased, especially during the July monsoon, followed by the annual 100-year drought. The Larry Hogan Memorial Tollway closed decades ago and the toll lanes were replaced with the maglev express and a hiker-biker trail from Hagerstown to Dulles SpacePort via Frederick, Rockville, Tysons, and Reston. The Fire Department was still trying to widen rustic roads, but road-widening money had pretty much dried up in face of the demands for more and better public transit and bike streets where cars were prohibited. Hardly anyone rides their electric AV to work nowadays because over half the workforce telecommutes and public transit is ubiquitous.”
“Whatever happened to the idea of a major highway cutting through the Reserve and crossing the Potomac to connect the 270 Corridor with Dulles Airport?” I asked. “Oh, you mean the Zombie Highway.” they laughed. “Well, until the sixties the proposal was resurrected about once a decade to stalk the Reserve and eat the brains of road advocates until they discovered they were sitting on a red hot stove. After the maglev was built it basically went away for good. A trip from Germantown to Dulles now takes less than 20 minutes.” I was relieved to hear the second crossing was no longer undead but finally dead dead. When we amputated the western leg of the Outer Beltway in 1974, we were pretty sure it wouldn’t grow back.
I found all this news reassuring. Before my career as a bird roost I had worried that the Reserve might be frittered away by officials professing to love it by promiscuously adding accessory uses to the zoning code that would ultimately make agriculture accessory to the accessories. “Whatever happened with agro-tourism? I inquired.
“There have been some great public and financial successes with things that were actually accessory to farming, like grape stomping and tasting rooms at wineries, expansion of pick-your-own to some grow-your-own farms, and harvest and planting festivals. A few breweries and cideries have been successful as some creameries have been, but large-scale event venues suffered the same fate as megachurches during the early days of the century. They had little or no real relation with farming, generated high volumes of traffic, annoyed their neighbors, and ultimately couldn’t compete with larger and more convenient facilities in Germantown, Clarksburg, and Damascus.”
“But there were some interesting proposals,” they confessed. One made during the recession of the 2060s would have converted the entire Reserve into a theme park with anatomically correct robotic cows that gave pasteurized, lactose free soymilk and emitted no methane; ‘rides’ on plastic ponies; and a funicular railway to the “Observe the Reserve” Ferris wheel on top of Sugarloaf mountain. There were to be hologram farmers, a 10,000-acre corn maze, and paint ball Hunger Games in Black Hill and Little Bennett Park. The promoters claimed this would supplement farmers’ income and, at last, make the parks profitable. A majority of the council, none of whom had visited the Reserve after election, were co-sponsors until they discovered the plastic and paint were not biodegradable. And that Sugarloaf Mountain was actually in Frederick County. Instead they passed a resolution declaring the Reserve to be the county’s beloved “Central Park.” The good thing that came of this misbegotten idea was that the General Assembly enacted legislation that declared the Montgomery Agricultural Reserve to be an Area of Critical State Concern where enhanced review was required for uses unrelated to their primary purposes. A special revolving fund was established to provide startup loans for new farmers.
My new friends decided to take me on a tour of the Reserve. As our solar powered Autonomous Vehicle circumnavigated the arc of the Reserve from Mouth of Seneca to Brookeville, I noticed mailboxes were gone (the US Postal Service had been replaced with Amazon drones). Many farm entrance signs still bore the names of venerable families, but there were many new Hispanic, Asian, and African names, indicating a change in land ownership that reflected the county population, which I learned was only about 25 percent white Anglo.
Fields I remembered as rotating corn and soy were now orchards, vineyards, growing hemp, or table crops favored by Hispanic, African, and Asian palates. They pointed out that the trend of the first forty years, continued. Grain farming continued to decline due the idiotic tariff war in the second Ivanka Trump administration and the decline of the Delmarva chicken industry due to its impact on the Chesapeake Bay and rising sea and bay levels. There was still a good bit of soybean farming , however, to supply Germantown’s tofu factory, the maker of I Can’t Believe It’s Not Chicken. The ten-month growing season allowed two crops a year, plus greenhouse hydroponic farming in the two months of cool weather. Much of the food produced was sold at the massive Reserve Cooperative Farmers’ Market at the old fairgrounds in Gaithersburg. The Reserve still had a lot of horses that were valuable not only for recreation but now that most chemical fertilizers that had been outlawed or were prohibitively expensive, horse manure was an important cash crop.
As we turned down Sugarland Road, the forensic anthropologist in the group asked if I knew if the large mounds-- about five feet high and 30 feet long--were evidence of prehistoric mound builders or if they had some religious significance? “No,” I explained, “they are septic sand mounds.” The 1980 plan recommended using no alternative septic technology to conventional deep trench systems to avoid exceeding the natural carrying capacity of the Reserve’s soils. However, after the Maryland Department of Environment, reclassified sand mounds from “alternative” to “conventional” technology the council permitted them, creating potential for hundreds of additional residences on land that otherwise could not be developed.
Before getting bronzed, I had worried that the use of sand mounds might result in a proliferation McMansions and fragmentation of the Reserve. Surveying the terrain, I did not see many more mounds than I remembered. “That must mean that the council came to its senses or BLT program must have worked,” I said.
“What does a bacon sandwich have to do with the Reserve?” Someone asked. “It doesn’t have a lot of hog farms.” I said when the Reserve was created, we expected that when farmers sold their development rights they might keep one for each 25 acres for an existing farmhouse or to build a new one, and the price of land in the Reserve would stabilize at its agricultural value. Instead, those retained “fifth development rights” turned out to be far more valuable than all the others that were sold. By 2006 prices for those buildable lot rights ranged from $300,000 to $750,000. Such prices precluded new farmers from buying land and, thus, imperiled the future of farming by fragmenting the critical mass of a working landscape. We had unintentionally created a class of Super Rights.
Real farmers began championing a program to make it as profitable to transfer those rights as to use them on site. The planning board worked through the mechanics, economics, and politics of setting up the Building Lot Termination (BLT) program. It required builders seeking bonus density in transit-served areas to purchase BLT rights for a percentage of their bonus density. Apparently, most buildable rights were terminated and reincarnated as apartments and commercial space near transit stations. The Reserve’s land was being farmed instead of subdivided.
I then said it also looked like PIF policy must have worked. “What in the world is a PIF?” my friend implored. I explained it was an acronym for private institutional facilities, in turn a euphemism for megachurches and other gigantic facilities that attracted large numbers of people and generated heavy traffic on country roads. Land in the Reserve was within the capacity of capital campaigns, or if prayers were answered, a land-rich member passing through the eye of a needle might leave the Reserve real estate to a noble cause with an edifice complex.
In the early 2000s several large institutions sought or acquired land or options in the Reserve. Their proposals galvanized opposition from farmers and other residents, concerned these projects of unseemly scale would be the first of many. Changes in the zoning code and septic regulations, and in one case, county purchase of the land, finally reduced their threat and PIFs seem to have poofed. As we traveled through the Reserve we saw few buildings larger than barns except some McMansions built before Congress repealed the mortgage deduction.
All things considered, I was pleased that the Reserve had survived, and just as I was remarking on how well kept its historic farmsteads were, we entered a time warp and it was 2020 again. It was good to look backward, but what I saw was only one possible future. I realized how important it is to recognize that what we may see at some future day will be shaped by a series of “but fors;” people and events without which something different would have happened. The hard question for history is not what happened, but why did it happen as it did? Why wasn’t Montgomery developed like the rest of the region? Why is there no metropolitan Poolesville? Why in the age of suburban sprawl did the Reserve happen instead of what was more probable; indeed, what was considered inevitable?
As I contemplated that question, I have concluded it would not have happened but for two brothers-in-law, a planner’s thumb, three ironies, a power play, and two windows of opportunity. But since I am speaking to historians, context matters. To avoid the hazard of putting the context in context, I shall try to be brief.
As Montgomery’s agricultural economy shifted first, from tobacco to grain, then to dairying when the B&O’s Metropolitan Branch opened, and back to grain, soybeans, and pumpkins. Civilization followed sewers to the suburbs. The county’s population grew tenfold between 1920 and 1960, but almost half the county was still rural. An early effort to keep part of the county rural failed in late 1958 when a lame duck council approved but did not implement 10-acre zoning for what remained of rural Montgomery. The next council rezoned a small area two-acre but left the rest of the up-county zoned half-acre, ready for subdivisions as soon as it could be sewered.
About this time, concern that rapid growth would overwhelm the region’s infrastructure and endanger operations of the federal government led the National Capital Regional Planning Council to produce A Plan for the Year 2000 for the National Capital Region, which recommended organizing the region’s growth in compact new cities along radial highway corridors, separated by wedges of open space. The Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission (M-NCCPC) hired consultant Harland Bartholomew to prepare the 1962 Wedges and Corridors Plan general plan. Landowners, developers, and business leaders denounced it and a few months later, Montgomery County elected a county council that opposed the plan and went on a four year rezoning spree that ignored it. The brothers-in-law saved it.
David Scull, as chairman of the Montgomery County Republican Central Committee, got Caroline Freeland appointed to the planning board. Blair Lee III, who was the bridge between the old guard of his father’s political machine and the rising reform wing of the Democratic Party, joined Scull in persuading the planning commission to come up with a compromise it could adopt. When the commission deadlocked on the density for the wedges, a planner’s thumb made adoption possible. Planner Lewis Elston prepared the plan’s land use map using pastels, smearing colors with his thumb to make wedge densities ambiguous. His low tech cartography allowed planning commissioners to interpret wedge densities as each saw fit and the commission adopted the plan in 1964.
That was the first irony that would make the Agricultural Reserve possible. Because Colonel Lee blocked reformer’s efforts to abolish the independent planning commission, the county council, which opposed the plan, could not prevent its adoption. But it merrily ignored it.
Once more, Scull and Lee played critical roles in rescuing it. In 1966, a new council was elected, comprised of three Democrats and four Republicans, one of whom was Scull. Scull made a deal with the Democrats. He would be president for the first year before passing the office to the Democratic members. The bi-partisan majority then appointed a “Blue Ribbon” committee, chaired by Blair Lee, to determine if the General Plan remained valid and to recommend how it might be implemented. Lee’s committee recommended updating the plan. The council approved it under legislation Lee got passed and the commission adopted it. This made wedges and corridors official county land use policy, but it still had to be implemented.
In 1970 an all Democratic Council and a Republican County Executive, James Gleason, were elected under a new county charter. Now came the power play. The council members’ promise to implement the General Plan depended on whether they or Gleason, would control appointments to the planning board. In a conflict that lasted several months, the Council secured legislation that transferred power to appoint planning commissioners from the executive to the council. It then appointed a board majority and a full time chair with a mandate to implement the Wedges and Corridors Plan. It would be complicated because almost immediately upon taking office the council found development in most of the county shut down by a moratorium on new sewer connections. That put pressure on the wedges where development could proceed on wells and septic systems.
Desperately seeking relief from the moratorium, the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission proposed a new 65 million gallon a day Advanced Wastewater Treatment plant, to be located at Dickerson, which was as far above the water intakes as possible and still be in Montgomery County. Sewage would be delivered to the Dickerson plant from the beltway by a 25-mile long force main, which threated the viability of the western wedge by generating pressure to connect all along its length and open the wedge to suburban sprawl. Without wedges, there could be no corridors and the General Plan would have a short shelf life.
We now come to the second irony. The sewer saved the wedge. It also provided the first window of opportunity. Planning Director Dick Tustian realized the sewer provided an opportunity to save the wedge instead destroy it. If the planning board and council would implement the General Plan’s recommendation for a rural zone, it would provide a density too low for sewers to be feasible. A team led by Perry Berman meticulously identified every property that should be placed in a five-acre rural zone. In 1973 the council rezoned 112,688 acres, of which 96,522 were placed in the new Rural Zone. It also restricted access to the proposed force main to the corridor cities of Germantown and Gaithersburg. Ultimately, the USEPA rejected the Dickerson plant. But for the force main and treatment plant proposal, it is likely the opportunity to act would have passed in the crush of other business.
In spite of the Rural Zone, the number of homes constructed on septic systems increased. Suburbanization seemed inevitable. An impermanence syndrome infected the wedges. Then, a second window of opportunity opened. Across the nation there was growing concern that suburban sprawl was costly and consuming too much valuable farmland. Locally, a rise in commodity prices dampened enthusiasm for selling farms to developers. County farmers warned farming could disappear. The council appointed an Agriculture Preservation Advisory Committee. The planning board seized it to reframe the General Plan’s vision from merely protecting passive wedges of open space to sustaining a working agricultural landscape and rural heritage.
In 1980 the council approved the Functional Master Plan for Preservation of Agriculture and Rural Open Space. The plan’s three critical elements were identifying the “critical mass” of contiguous farmland that should and could be protected from fragmentation by subdivisions; designing a zoning ordinance that made agriculture the primary use and established a reasonable density of one residence per 25 acres; and provided a way for landowners to recover equity in their land without selling it for development.
The Plan identified 110,000 acres containing the critical mass of contiguous farmland and rural villages. A smaller 26,000-acre area was identified where existing development made farming problematic, but by clustering homes, open space could be preserved, and some farming might continue. A study by the county’s Agricultural extension agent concluded that 25 acres was the minimum needed for a financially sustainable farm in Montgomery County. That set the maximum density permitted in the rural zone at 25 acres for each residence.
The third irony was that New York City’s Grand Central Station provided the solution to the equity problem for farmers in rural Montgomery County. The U.S. Supreme Court in 1978 held that to protect that historic station from redevelopment, building rights permitted by its zoning could be transferred to an adjacent property. Adapting Transferable Development Rights (TDRs) for agricultural preservation involved two innovations. Landowners in the new zone could retain one TDR for each five acres, which they could sell to builders with land elsewhere in the county that master plans designated for increased density if TDRs were purchased. When TDRs were severed from the land, an easement in perpetuity was granted to the county restricting the property to no more than one residence per 25 acres. Convinced a council majority was prepared to down-zone to 25 acres without TDRs, one farm leader later told me: “You made us an offer we couldn’t refuse.”
The final touch was to give the area a distinctive name: the “Agricultural Reserve.” This distinguished it as an area permanently reserved for active farming, rather than preserved as an historic or cultural artifact, or as a “wedge” of ill-defined open space.
It worked. The Reserve has become a national model for farmland preservation across the country. Today, TDR and other easements protect about 75,000 acres. Few TDRs remain to be sold. Their value has varied with the housing market. They rose from under $10,000 in the eighties to $42,000 before collapsing during the Great Recession, and then recovering to around $20,000.
The Agricultural Reserve has been honored by the American Planning Association as a Planning Landmark. In 2017 it contained 558 farms and 350 horticultural businesses. It provided over 10,000 jobs and a quarter of a billion dollars a year in income.
I don’t actually know what the Reserve will look like in 2080. But there are some things I do know. I know that if the county enforces its easements in perpetuity, the land can be protected so that it can be used for agriculture and not preempted for unrelated and invasive uses.
I know that as the region continues to grow, the Reserve will add value to the quality of life for residents and businesses. It not only marks Montgomery as environmentally unique; it is an inspiring and beautiful complement to our great park system. With its rustic roads and historic sites, it is a landscape for bikers, hikers, equestrians, and environmentalists to explore and cherish. For the county’s students, it is a living ecology curriculum. For historians it has events to chronicle, structures, families, and communities to interpret, and secrets to reveal.
I know that most of all, the Reserve is and will be a source of fresh local food and fiber. The kind of farming done in the Reserve will change because agriculture is the most sensitive of industries to consumer demand and tastes. What is produced, how it is grown, by whom, and the size of farms will be in almost constant flux. One of the great challenges to perpetuation of farming is facilitating entry of new generations of farmers—particularly by enabling them to purchase or lease farms by keeping land values within reach. Development of a central farmers’ market could not only provide high quality produce for local palates; it can be an educational force for healthy living and build strong emotional and financial bonds between the Reserve and consumers as the county becomes increasingly urban and diverse.
We can hope the Reserve will remain a working landscape, changing in ways we cannot now imagine. The greatest danger to its integrity will come from well-meaning but poorly thought through policies that fragment it with exurban subdivisions, or that introduce invasive uses alien to its purpose that would turn it from a working landscape to a passive one or a kind of theme park. The survival and integrity of the Reserve rests on broader understanding by the public and policy makers that it is a vital part of the county’s economy, the regional environment, and its recreational and cultural ecosystem. Our county and state officials should heed Hippocrates: First, do no harm. And second, think before acting.
I have dwelt, thus far, primarily on utilitarian justifications for the Reserve. There is, however, a deeper, moral reason for sustaining it so that it will still be here in 2080 and 2180. An urban, knowledge-based civilization has many advantages but one of its disadvantages is loss of connection with mother earth. The Reserve is an immediate reminder that there is a season for planting and one for growing and one for harvest and one for letting the earth rest before the cycle of life begins anew. For all of us it is a public trust to pass to future generations better than we received it.
This little patch of dirt is not magnificent in the great scheme of things. But, alone in this metropolis, in the midst of constant change and development, it is an intentional garden, guarded by law, rooted in history, a private place that serves a public purpose. In this urban and global age such a garden is more important than ever. It is a physical symbol and moral recognition of humanity’s inseparable connection with the earth, which is so easily diminished as we move from farm to industry to the virtual world of artificial intelligence. It is our Voltaire’s Garden, a local place of earth and heart where, as trustees of the future, we share with its fee simple owners, responsibility to cultivate, because by so doing we make ourselves and our community better.