Can we save what farmland is left?

Deborah Bowers

April 04, 1991|By Deborah Bowers

FOR A FEW DAYS last month I left our Harford County farm at sunrise to drive to Washington, D.C., to gather with about 300 people who work in the small but growing enterprise of farmland preservation. While the "2020" proposal to manage Maryland's growth was being sent to "summer study" by the Maryland General Assembly, these people were exchanging information on how farmland can be saved from development.

Maryland has had a farmland preservation program since 1977 that has been a model for other states. About a dozen states -- all in the Northeast -- now have programs that offer to pay farmers to keep land in farming, thereby saving it from development. Other states, such as North Carolina and California, will soon consider such programs.

There are also a growing number of land trusts that purchase easements on farmland -- similar to buying development rights. The American Farmland Trust, which sponsored the conference I attended, is the nation's only national nonprofit organization that pays farmers to keep their land in farming.

When it became apparent that the "2020" statewide planning initiative would not be enacted by the 1991 legislature, all I could think of was how statewide planning and zoning were needed 30 years ago, when farmland in Harford County first began to fall to suburbanization and local government didn't have the foresight to protect rural resources.

Such a law would have defined where development could take place and where farmland should be preserved. Back then, there would have been enough large blocks of land to keep our farming industry on a large enough scale to make it truly viable. I don't know what can be done now for this industry that produces $25 million in income in Harford County annually. I don't even know how many farmers still want to protect their land. In the last six years, Harford County has lost 18,000 acres of farmland to development.

A statewide planning law would have required a more efficient use of land, curbing sprawl and saving billions of dollars in extensions of water and sewer service statewide. Local governments spent that money in the belief that the tax base would expand along with the suburbs. They were wrong.

Harford County is only now beginning to work on ways to save the remainder of its rural land and identity, and at the same time acknowledge that further residential and commercial development does not bring in enough revenue to pay for the public services that have to be provided -- particularly when the residents, at least those in Harford, don't want additional shopping malls.

My parents bought our farm, about 12 miles north of Bel Air, in 1946. My mother's family thought she was foolish for moving so far out in the country. They were truly isolated then. Now, if you drive to the city in the morning, you wait in line at the nearest traffic light about two miles away, to make that southbound turn.

During the 1960s as I was growing up, I watched one hillside after another get bulldozed and built upon, and my favorite landscapes become unrecognizable. I know you've heard the story before. But why was it allowed?

Even now, I wonder about this. Where does it begin? Is development really inevitable, as some government officials maintain? Are we really experiencing population growth that makes it necessary to build new homes in the middle of cornfields? What drives this machine?

Is it the speculator driving along the country road who decides to make a farmer a deal he can't refuse? Or is it the local government, by not having effective zoning on the books, that makes it possible for the speculator to make the deal in the first place?

In 1977, Harford County decided to allow one house to be built for every 10 acres owned. It was the biggest mistake the county ever made. At that moment, a group of so-called leaders sealed the fate of Harford's farming industry and our rural way of life. It was apparent at the time that this one-unit-per-10-acres zoning would not keep speculators from buying farmland 15 miles away from town. In fact, the market for large-lot homes flourished. What was needed was perhaps a regulation allowing a house for every 50 or 60 acres. That would have protected farmland from encroachment. But our leaders obviously wanted to protect property values, not farmland or a way of life.

It is a terrible thing to acknowledge an absence of wise leadership when your very way of life is the victim.

Better planning principles were known at the time. One house per 10 acres was a license for sprawl. Developer and farmer alike ate it up. Now Harford County suffers from inadequate services, with plenty of people living here but many fewer people shopping and doing business here.

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