In a move that could have a dramatic impact on Howard County's agricultural preservation program, the University of Maryland will offer to sell to the county government the development rights to its 900-acre research farm in the heart of the county.
Ray Miller, vice chancellor for agriculture and natural resources, said selling development rights to the university's Central Maryland Farm Research and Education Center would help finance its operations and ensure that there would be room to conduct research.
"It is very important that we maintain the ability to conduct agricultural and natural resources research, and the Central Maryland Farm is a key site we want to save because of its proximity to the university's campuses," he said.
By purchasing the development rights, the county would ensure that a large swath of land remained in farming. The university is expected to make a formal proposal to the Agricultural Farmland Preservation Board within the next few months.
Mr. Miller said he had "no estimates yet" on how much the university could get for the rights to its farm, but county officials said it could be as much as $20 million over a 30-year period on an installment purchase plan.
The price would be set by the Farmland Preservation Board after negotiations.
John W. Musselman, chief of the agricultural preservation program, said the university's farm would be the largest the county had acquired and among the most important.
"We are talking about preserving land which is in the heart of Howard County, and it is a keynote piece that will help preserve farmland, farming and the farm community," Mr. Musselman said.
The county currently owns development rights to 10,170 acres and is negotiating on 2,483 additional acres, he said, adding that the university farm's inclusion in the program might encourage owners of five adjacent farms to join.
The University of Maryland farm, among the largest in the county, is located on both sides of Homewood and Folly Quarter roads in the Glenelg area.
Mr. Miller said the farm had three major research operations, one focusing on food for cattle, a dairy operation that features a new robotic milker and an urban garden center.
He said joining the preservation program would help the HTC research center avoid the fate of the university's horse farm on Route 108 and Old Montgomery Road in the eastern end of the county.
That farm became so pinned in by development that the university had to cease operations there and began to sell off parcels of the 176-acre tract last year.
Mr. Miller said it was important that the center have "sufficient buffer from adjacent farms to give our research operation some protection so it is not subject to development pressures, such as what happened to the horse farm.
"If we are able to put it into the program, we will gain some long-term operating support at a time when the university is going through budget reductions," he added. "The Central Farm is an invaluable resource to the state."
Before a deal is completed, Mr. Miller said, it would have to be approved by the university's Board of Regents and the state Board of Public Works.
"There are some who feel that because the Central Farm is state property, we should go into the development rights program and not receive anything in return, but there has got to be some middle ground," Mr. Miller said.