Should Harford's governing charter be changed to allow the county to borrow money that will be used to protect agricultural land from development?
That is the crux of the issue Harford voters will be asked to decide at the ballot box in November.
But County Council members have been wrangling over the exact wording of the question that will appear on the ballot.
A rural protection plan being drafted by county planners will include a proposal to start a program to purchase land development rights in rural areas.
Development rights are the number of houses that can be built ZTC on a rural site, usually one house for every 10 acres of agricultural land.
The program's goal is to encourage farmers to sell their land development rights to the county, instead of to developers, thereby preserving the land. Under the proposal, farmers would receive a lump sum payment for the development rights at the end of 20 years, receiving tax-free interest payments on the selling price in the interim.
But a charter amendment is needed to allow the county the authority to make such annual payments to farmers, and to create a 1 percent property transfer tax to repay the money the county borrows to fund the program. In addition, the proposed change would allow the county's repayments on the money it borrows to vary by more than 50 percent from one payment to the next.
Michael Paone, the county's agricultural planner, describes the program using this example:
For the 10 development rights on a 100-acre farm, the county might offer a farmer $2,000 an acre, or a total of $200,000. The county would borrow money on the bond market, and use the money to pay the farmer tax-free interest, possibly 6 percent, on the $200,000 for 20 years.
At the end of that 20-year period, the farmer would be entitled to receive the lump sum of $200,000. The county would use proceeds from a 1 percent tax on the transfer of real property to pay off the money it borrowed on the bond market to buy development rights.
"The problem is that you cannot do an annual payout [to farmers or others] under the current charter," said Mr. Paone.
However, the actual language of the charter amendment, the ballot wording and the possible imposition of a property transfer tax have become points of contention among council members.
Discussion of the ballot question at Tuesday's council meeting revolved around what transactions would be subject to the property transfer tax and whether voters would understand the issue unless it is spelled out in very simple language.
The council decided to delay a decision on the ballot issue until this week. That worried Councilman Barry T. Glassman, R-District D, who issued this warning to other council members:
"If we delay a decision, and the revised version continues to gloss over the issue and contain language half the voters won't understand, then I'm really going to throw a fit."