OCEAN CITY --Farmers have options for preserving their agricultural land and should take advantage of them -- to save farms and taxes.
"Voluntary programs are a way for farmers to preserve their equity and take the destiny of their farmland into their own hands," said Robert Etgen, executive director of the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy Inc.
Etgen spoke Monday at the annual Maryland Farm Bureau convention here about different ways to preserve farmland.
About 25 Carroll County farmers are attending the convention, which ends today.
"There are a bunch of options out there for rainy day needs," Etgensaid.
The conservancy, formed 14 months ago, is a private, non-profit group that seeks to preserve land by working with existing government programs, he said.
FOR THE RECORD - A headshot that ran in Wednesday's edition with a story about agriculture land preservation was actually Melvin Baile Sr.
A well-known option for preserving land is the Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Foundation, in which the state buys development rights, called easements, to farms if they meet certain criteria.
Carroll has the most active program in Maryland.
The county has 314 farms, or 40,215 acres, in five-year preservation districts; of that land, 20,150 acres have been preserved permanently.
In Maryland, 1,757 farms, or 302,000 acres, are in five-year districts; of that, 91,448 acres have been preserved permanently, Etgen said.
Another option is to form conservation easements, hesaid.
The landowner works with a conservation organization, such as Etgen's group, to design restrictions to protect farming and environmentally sensitive parts of the property, he said.
The landowneris not paid for the easement, but the restriction shields heirs fromfederal estate taxes, which are 47 percent to 55 percent of the property's value, Etgen said.
"It's a tremendous burden," he said of the tax. "A little planning goes a long way. Don't get stung."
In Maryland, 220 properties, or 35,000 acres, are protected under such easements, he said.
Landowners also may sell their development rights, Etgen said. By purchasing those rights, a developer can get approval to build at a higher density on other property more suitable for building.
Harford County is considering a countywide Transferable Development Rights Program and a plan for the county to issue bonds tobuy farmers' development rights, said Michael Paone, an agriculturalplanner for that county's De
partment of Planning and Zoning.
Melvin Baile Jr., a Medford grain farmer, said Carroll County probably will see a TDR program as a result of the comprehensive mineral mining plan being written.
The plan recommends allowing landowners with limestone on their property -- land on which development might be restricted -- to sell the development rights to a developer who can build in another part of the county.
Carroll officials are considering a TDR program to preserve farmland.
Gary Brauning II, a Finksburg dairy farmer and president of the Carroll County Farm Bureau, said options for preserving agricultural land have merit if they compensate farmers for the fair market value of their land.
"The main trouble with these things is they don't have the funds to make it work,"he said.
Carroll officials also are considering a program to save"critical" farms from development while the state's preservation program is in financial trouble.
The plan would allow the county to offer interest-free loans to farmers while they wait to sell development rights to the state.
The state program has been short on money since last spring, when $17 million was transferred from the farm preservation budget to the general fund to cover a shortfall.