Proposed Farm-preservation Changes Draw Concern

November 24, 1991|By Kerry O'Rourke | Kerry O'Rourke,Staff writer

Proposed changes to the state's farm-preservation law could mean fewer Carroll farms would be preserved, two agricultural officials said.

The proposals come as fewer farms are being accepted into the program because state money is tight.

The recommendations were made by a task force established last spring to look at the state's preservation program, said Paul W. Scheidt, executive director of the Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Foundation.

The group recommended two changes in state law, he said.

Some state officials were concerned that the state was preserving land that wasn't being actively farmed and that program money was being used by some to finance land purchases.

"They just wanted toensure that we weren't getting away from the active working farm," Scheidt said.

William Powel, program administrator in Carroll and amember of the task force, said the proposals won't have much immediate effect in the county because money isn't available to buy development rights, called easements.

Carroll has the most active preservation program in Maryland. The county has 314 farms, or 40,215 acres, in five-year preservation districts; of that, 20,150 acres have been permanently preserved, Powel said.

The task force included representatives from the governor's, comptroller's, treasurer's, state budget and planning offices and the Department of General Services, Scheidt said. Its recommendations will be submitted to the Department of Agriculture, which will decide whether to introduce them as legislationin January when the General Assembly begins its next session, he said.

The group recommended that a property owner be required to own a farm for 18 months before applying to sell the easement, except if he acquired the land from an immediate family member or had been "an integral part" of the operation for the previous 18 months.

Farmers who farmed rented land for 18 months, then bought the property would qualify, Powel said.

The proposal would help ensure that landowners don't use the preservation program "like a bank" to finance purchases, Scheidt said.

"What's wrong with that?" asked Westminster dairy farmer Ralph L. Robertson Jr., chairman of the Carroll Agricultural Preservation Advisory Board. "I think it (the 18-month period) puts restrictions on people."

Sometimes the only way a farmer can buyan adjacent farm is to use the easement money as a down payment, Robertson said.

The restriction could discourage farmers from preserving land, Powel said. "It's already been proven you can get through the subdivision process before you can get (preservation approval). I think the state's being overly protective," he added.

Carroll farmers who sold their development rights in fiscal 1990 received an average of $1,821 an acre. The average farm in the program was 130 acres.

The task force also recommended that a preservation district be at least 20 acres and be a working farm, which means it must have beenused for agriculture for three consecutive years.

Carroll County has accepted a few farms under 20 acres for preservation, Powel said.Farms under 100 acres may be accepted now if they are contiguous to other preservation districts.

Herbert and Mary-Lou Pletcher have applied to preserve their 10.5-acre farm outside Harney, where they raise cattle, hogs and chickens. Their application would be denied if the legislation passes, Powel said.

The task force also recommendedlegislation to make it clear that forming a five-year preservation district does not guarantee that the state will buy the development rights.

Some counties accept farms as districts that do not meet therequirements for easements, Powel said. This has not been a problem in Carroll, he said.

Powel said he and the Carroll advisory board oppose the recommendation because there's not much point to forming adistrict without the guarantee of selling an easement.

Last spring, the state transferred $17 million from the farm preservation budget to the general fund to cover a shortfall. This left 188 farms statewide, including 31 in Carroll, with pending applications.

Scheidt said the program probably will receive $7 million to $8 million in fiscal 1992, which will pay for only a portion of the offers.

Maryland Treasury Department, Comptroller's Office

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