Daniel McConaughy of Shawsville was among 150 farmers who packed theLevel Volunteer Fire Hall to hear how the county plans to keep them from selling out.
McConaughy, whose 92-acre tree farm already is part of a state agricultural preservation program, said many Harford farmers want to stay in business and believe in preserving undevelopedareas.
"However, farmers are caught between a rock and a hard spot because they favor conservation and environmental preservation, but it hurts in the pocketbook," said McConaughy.
That's why he patiently listened for several hours Tuesday night as county planners mapped out their ideas and fellow farmers asked questions. But he's not sold on any of the planners' proposals, which include having the county pay for farmers' development rights.
With developers paying $3,000 to $4,000 per acre for agriculturally zonedland in Harford, the incentivefor farmers to sell is strong.
Between 1985 and 1990, Harford County lost about 15,000 acres of farm land to development, said MichaelPaone, the county's agricultural planner. The remaining 730 working farms in the county comprise about 100,000 acres of farm land, Paone said.
If all of the agricultural land were developed, between 16,000 and 18,000 homes could be built, Paone estimated.
Dwindling farm acreage has created a sense of urgency among county planners.
Atthe fire hall, Paone outlined for members of the Harford County FarmBureau some of the ideas planners are evaluating to protect the county's rural areas. Those ideas will be presented to the County Councilat its meeting Aug. 13 in the County Courthouse in Bel Air.
Paonesaid a detailed rural preservation plan would not be ready until this fall.
Strategies county planners are considering include:* Creating a county-subsidized program to buy "development rights" from farmers so that they won't sell land to developers. Property owners can build one house for every 10 acres on agriculturally zoned land.
* Starting a Transfer of Development Rights program to allow farmers inan area set aside for preservation to sell and transfer development rights from their property to land owners in another section of the county targeted for development. Land owners in the "receiving" area slated for development would then be able to develop land at higher densities.
* Setting zoning regulations that would allow developers to build homes on smaller lots so that less land would be disturbed.
* Guiding development in and near seven village areas -- Churchville, Darlington, Dublin, Whiteford-Cardiff, Norrisville, Jarrettsville, Forest Hill, Upper Crossroads and Coopstown.
"I was a little disappointed because they were not new ideas, and they seemed to be justtalking about theories. But some of the ideas sounded as if they would be workable," said McConaughy after the Farm Bureau meeting.
Sam Foard, a member of the Farm Bureau's legislative committee, said many farmers would probably support the planners' ideas, provided "theyare options,not mandatory regulations.
"There are a lot of peopleout there who don't want to see farms developed and don't necessarily have to have the high dollars," said Foard.
"There are a lot of us who will not cash in. But what keeps you farming though the cash-flow is not good is that your equity is growing because of the value of your land."
Another major problem planners will have to address is abuse of a loophole in one of two formulas used to calculate the number of houses that can be built on agricultural land.
Although development rights are calculated at a rate of one house per 10 acres of agricultural land, a farm purchased before February 1977 and ownedcontinuously by the same person is considered a family conveyance, adesignation that gives the landowner additional development rights for each sibling, child or parent still living.
For example, a 100-acre farm made of three parcels of land would automatically have 10 development rights because it is zoned for agriculture, Paone said.
But if that same 100-acre farm is also a family conveyance, the landowner is entitled to an additional 10-acre development right for eachliving relative on each parcel of the farm, Paone said.
If there were eight relatives, each would be entitled to house lots on each ofthe three parcels that make up the farm, creating 24 additional development rights. Add those to the 10 homes that can be built under current zoning, and the owners has a total of 34 development rights.
"Half of the 730 working farms qualify for family conveyances," said Paone.
"It's very much a loophole which has been severely abused,"he said. "As it is, we lose about 3 percent of our farm land each year to development.
"It's important to preserve farm land because while farming has never been a big employer, it contributes to the character and the overall economy of the county. In addition, preservingthe land saves the county money because the county will not have to provide services."