Land Trusts Emerge To Stop Development

April 15, 1991|By John A. Morris | John A. Morris,Staff writer

As the General Assembly rejected statewide controls on growth last month, residents along the Magothy River were taking matters into their own hands.

A small band of residents incorporated the Magothy River Land Trust, a non-profit volunteer agency aimed at protecting theriver from development.

"Everyone agrees they would like to keep some areas pristine," said Melvin Bender, acting president of the land trust. "We felt if thecitizens could do anything to save green space, they should."

"It's just residents doing what they can without relying on the government," said Micheal Christianson, president of the Magothy River Association. "If you want to make things better, you put your money and your effort where your mouth is."

Land trusts are booming in Anne Arundel County. The Magothy group is the sixth trust to incorporate herein the last three years.

First conceived more than 100 years ago in Massachusetts, trusts enter into legally binding agreements with property owners not to develop their land. Those agreements are calledconservation easements.

"People are becoming interested now, because they see that farm next door or that stand of trees outside disappearing and they want to do something about it," said Grant DeHart, director of the Maryland Environmental Trust, a quasi-governmental agency.

"One of the main problems along the Severn, and anywhere elsein the Chesapeake Bay watershed, is how do we control development," said Clifford Andrew, a member of the Severn River Association. "We need to preserve land, but there isn't enough money in the public coffer to buy it all. And the state won't confiscate it. So we need to get private owners to agree not to develop."

Owners can voluntarily donate an easement. Or they canexchange the easement for substantial tax breaks.

Land trusts can offer them five-year breaks on their income taxes and up to 15-year credits on property taxes.

"You combine the property owners' natural inclination to keep the land the waythey have always enjoyed it with economic incentives and it really starts to make sense to people," DeHart said.

Although the number of trusts have boomed, the number of protected properties has not.

The Severn River Land Trust holds conservation easements on five parcels estimated to include about 55 acres. The Anne Arundel Conservation Trust holds an easement on a 200-year-old oak tree in the middle ofPatuxent Boulevard outside Annapolis.

Other trusts still trying to get off the ground are the Annapolis Conservancy Board, the SouthCounty Conservancy Board and the Bay Ridge Trust.

Conservation activists say it's too early to judge the value of the land trusts. The volunteer staffs have spent much of their time so far learning the ropes.

Another drawback has been that only parcels of 25 acres or morequalified for the property tax breaks. But, the legislature passed anew law this spring which will extend the benefit to smaller lots.

"The timing of that bill is excellent," said Barbara Oakie, the county Department of Planning and Zoning's land preservation coordinator. "We have several land trusts now and that's just what they needed to give them an edge."

Land trusts could prove particularly important as the state begins to enforce a new law requiring developers to replace trees they cut down.

"Right now we have no land to replant these trees on," said Delegate Marsha Perry, D-Crofton.

"Obviously, the Severn and Magothy land trusts were formed for the protection of the rivers. But, I think in the '90s we'll be saving land for the sake of saving land."

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