Commissioners Support Farm Plan But Delay Voting

December 04, 1991|By Adam Sachs | Adam Sachs,Staff writer

Two county commissioners say they support a plan to provide upfront money to farmers to save "critical farms" from development, but delayed voting Tuesday to start the process.

Time and cash-on-hand are critical factors in determining whether a farmer who wants to stay inthe business will be forced to subdivide part of his land or sell itoff altogether for development.

The state Agricultural Land Preservation Program is flunking the test for both. Its coffers have been depleted by budget reductions, and it can't pledge how long it might take to purchase development rights from a farmer who needs the money to keep farming.

To fill thevoid, the county's farmland preservation administrator has proposed a plan giving the county an option to purchase development rights to farms under certain circumstances.

Applicants to the proposed program would have to demonstrate either that severe economic hardship leaves no option other than selling residential lots, the farm is undercontract to be sold, or the farm will be sold in an estate settlement.

The plan is aimed at saving farms near others preserved in perpetuity in the state program. Farms that have the greatest developmentpotential also would be ranked as high priority to receive limited county money.

Commissioners Donald I. Dell and Elmer C. Lippy said they would wait until the draft is discussed with Commissioner Julia W. Gouge before voting to schedule a public hearing. Gouge was ill Tuesday and did not attend Program Administrator William Powel's presentation.

Powel said three county farms would qualify as "critical" because they could be sold as part of estate settlements. In at leastone instance, a tenant farmer wants to acquire the property and keepit in agriculture, but does not have the financial means, said Powel.

"There's some urgency in this," said Ralph L. Robertson Jr., County Agricultural Preservation Advisory Board chairman.

The option contract would require the landowner to enter his property in a preservation district, which precludes development for at least five years.

In essence, the county would offer an interest-free loan of 75 percent of the easement value -- the property's fair-market value minus its agricultural value. The county would provide two appraisals, then negotiate a final easement value.

The purchase option would exist for six years, during which time the applicant would be obligated to pursue selling development rights to the state. If development rights were sold at a price exceeding the county's offer, the county would be reimbursed.

If after five years, an agreement is not reached, the applicantwould offer a sale price to the state that equals the county's option. If the easement still is not purchased, the county would exercise its purchase option.

Money for the "critical farm" purchases would come from the agricultural transfer tax, levied when agricultural land is converted to another use. The county retains 75 percent of that tax.

Carroll has the most successful farm preservation program in the state. As of July, 314 farms totaling 40,215 acreshad been placed in preservation districts. Of those, development rights have been sold to the state on 151 farms totaling 20,150 acres.

The state did not purchase easements in fiscal 1991 because of budget problems, leaving seven Carroll landowners who had received preliminary approval for contracts in the lurch.

Participation in Carroll's program increased dramatically in 1989, when a county financial incentive program was created.

But it has dropped off as the state's purchasing capability plummeted, resulting in the discontinuance ofthe incentive program last spring.

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