State Fund To Buy Farm Development Rights Nearly Empty

Budget Woes Mean Less Land Will Be Saved As Open Space

April 14, 1991|By Kerry O'Rourke | Kerry O'Rourke,Staff writer

William Powel is being honest with farmers when they inquire about the county's farmland preservation program: Money is tight.

No farmers will be able to sell development rights this fiscal year because the state has no money to buy them.

Fifty-three farmers in Carroll had agreed to sell development rights in fiscal 1991, which ends June 30, said Powel, administrator of the county's Agricultural Land Preservation Program.

With the budget crunch, Carroll County won't be able to offer farmers monetary incentives through a preservation program, which means less land will besaved for open space, Powel said.

Applications for the program already have begun dropping off, he said. No farmers applied in March.

County Commissioner President Donald I. Dell said, "It's a disappointment, particularly here in Carroll County. Bill has done such a good job of building this program. If you miss a year, you lose momentum."

The ag land preservation budget was a victim of the state's budget deficit. To help reduce a $423 million deficit, the state transferred $17 million from the ag land program to the state general fund,leaving $5 million in the state ag land budget.

Program advocatesgot $7 million back as part of a capital bond bill that authorizes the state to sell bonds to finance certain programs, said Sen. CharlesH. Smelser, D-Carroll, Frederick, Howard.

Smelser, a member of the Budget and Taxation Committee, said the House had recommended $5 million be raised for ag land preservation, and the Senate suggested $8.5 million. They compromised on $7 million, he said.

The $7 million puts enough money in the ag land budget to pay 35 farmers across the state, including nine from Carroll, for development rights they agreed to sell in fiscal 1990, Powel said. Most will be paid in fiscal 1992.

It's also possible that 31 of the Carroll farmers who appliedin fiscal 1991 would be paid in fiscal 1992, he said.

Maryland has the most successful preservation program in the nation, and Carrollhas used the program most successfully in the state, said Edward Thompson Jr., general counsel for the non-profit American Farmland Trust, based in Washington.

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-third of 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 to developers. The state buys the development rights, and landowners continue to farm.

Farmers also can put their land into a five-year preservation district before selling the development rights. As an incentive, Carroll County has been paying farmers 5 percent of the land value when they create a district and another 5 percent when they sell development rights.

With state and county money tight, Powel said the county will spend all its money on development rights, leaving nothing for incentives in fiscal '92.

Carroll farmers who sold theirdevelopment rights in fiscal '90 got an average of $1,821 an acre, he said. The average farm was 130 acres. Farmers sold rights on 3,600acres in fiscal '90.

With state money dwindling, the county will have to provide more if the preservation program is to continue, Powel said. Montgomery and Howard counties use money from county taxes tofinance the program.

Money for ag land preservation programs in Carroll comes from an ag transfer tax and Program Open Space.

Dell said he wouldn't advocate a special county tax for ag land preservation, but would suggest using property tax money.

Another way to preserve farmland is to transfer development rights from the farm to a designated growth area, he said. The developer would buy the rights.

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