Successful Farmland Program May Be Sacrificed For Deficit

Officials Propose A $17 Million Transfer From The Preservation Project To State's General Fund

January 27, 1991|By Kerry O'Rourke | Kerry O'Rourke,Staff writer

County efforts to preserve farmland could be jeopardized if the state slashes the budget as officials have proposed.

"It's distressingnews," said Ralph L. Robertson Jr., chairman of the county Agriculture Preservation Advisory Board. "It really could hurt the program."

State budget officials have proposed transferring $17 million from the farmland preservation budget to the state's general fund to help reduce the $423 million budget deficit. The transfer would leave only about $5 million in the farmland budget.

The cut would cripple the program for the fiscal year that ends June 30, said Leonard E. Lowry, a Washington County farmer who chairs the Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Foundation board of trustees.

A spokesman for Gov. William Donald Schaefer said the governor doesn't like the idea oftaking money from the program but that almost all state budgets are being tapped.

"The governor is a huge supporter of the agland preservation program," Paul Schurick said.

Sen. Charles H. Smelser, D-Carroll, Frederick, Howard, and a member of the Budget and Taxation Committee, said the legislature hasn't acted yet on the administration's budget proposal, so it still is possible the entire $17 million won't be cut.

"Hopefully, we can get some adjustments," he said.

County Commissioner Julia W. Gouge said the commissioners will contact Carroll legislators to ask them to fight to keep some of the money.

Farmland preservation money comes from a state agricultural transfer tax and Program Open Space money.

Maryland has the most successful preservation program in the United States, and Carroll County has used the program most successfully in the state, said Edward Thompson Jr., general counsel for the American Farmland Trust in Washington. Six other states have similar programs, he said.

"Carroll Countystands to lose the most since it has been so successful," he said.

The American Farmland Trust is a private, non-profit group that works for the preservation of farmland and agricultural resources.

Carroll has preserved about 40,000 acres since the program began in 1977. The county's goal is to preserve 100,000 acres, or about one-thirdof the land. The state has preserved about 224,000 of its 6.2 million acres.

The farmland preservation program allows farmers to profit from their land without selling it for development. The state buys the development rights, and landowners continue to farm.

In Carroll, farmers who sold their development rights in fiscal 1990 received an average of $1,821 an acre, said William Powel, county program administrator. The average farm size was 130 acres, he said.

Farmers also can put their land into a five-year preservation district before selling the development rights. Carroll County has an incentive program in which farmers are paid 5 percent of the land value when they create a district and another 5 percent when they sell development rights.

The county program also is trying to deal with a proposed budget cut. The program requested $2 million for fiscal 1992, and the budget office is recommending that it receive $500,000.

Statewide, 401 applications to sell development rights are pending from this fiscal year, 53 of which are from Carroll. If the $17 million is cut from the budget, many applicants won't be paid this year, which could destroy the "good will" the program has built up, Thompson said.

"It would take years for the momentum to build up again," said Thompson, who is also chairman of the farmland preservation advisory board in Montgomery County.

Schurick said the $17 million transfer would be aone-time contribution.

"It's not setting a precedent," he said.

Robertson said county preservation leaders "are going to fight (thecuts) as much as we can."

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