Preserving county's rural nature Land trust seeks easements for conservation CARROLL COUNTY FARM/BUSINESS

October 01, 1992|By Amy L. Miller | Amy L. Miller,Staff Writer

County residents are working to create a private program to save Carroll's rural nature as state and federal budget cuts slowly diminish agricultural preservation funds.

"We want to do everything we can to protect the agricultural character of Carroll County," said Janice Teeter, president of the Carroll County Land Trust. "We're trying to provide people with options to keep farmland or land with some type of environmental quality protected."

The land trust is a non-profit organization that preserves land from development by buying conservation easements. Ms. Teeter and other members of the land trust were to present their group's idea today to county agribusiness officials.

The program, modeled after the 4 1/2 -year-old Lancaster (Pa.) Farmland Trust, will collect money from memberships, grants and private foundations to buy the conservation easement or development rights for the property.

Easements may also be donated by the landowners to the trust.

"Essentially, the landowner enters into a perpetual legal agreement that permanently restricts development of the property," Ms. Teeter said.

"But the property remains privately owned."

Lancaster's trust, which started as private support for the governmental land preservation, has saved 30 farms since the group became independent 1988. The organization now has a paid staff of four and 2,000 members in 22 states and Canada.

Annual contributions per member average much higher than the $25 membership fee, said Alan Musselman, executive director of the Lancaster Farmland Trust.

"Among farmers and land owners, there is a very strong ethic that relates to stewardship as opposed to exploitation," he said. "That's principally what we attribute most of our success to."

Unlike a government land trust, a private trust can move quicker to save an endangered piece of land, said Mr. Musselman, who was the first director of the Maryland Environmental Trust.

"In one situation, a farm was on the market and it was the subject of an option by a development company," he said. "The option was abandoned briefly, so we acquired the farm and secured a permanent conservation easement."

The farm was bought for $830,000 and immediately resold to another buyer, he said.

"Obviously, as a private land trust, we didn't have $830,000," Mr. Musselman said. "But, we did have the down payment and the resale prearranged. We had the freedom and flexibility to set priorities and to respond very quickly to an urgent circumstance."

The group also can be more flexible in what they offer a landowner in exchange for the conservation easement.

"We've done some unique things in terms of fulfilling the needs of landowners," said Mr. Musselman. "In one instance, we provided scholarships for the grandchildren of the owners of the farm in exchange for the conservation easement."

Since conservation easements must be included with every transaction involved with the property, they are almost impossible to break, he said. For example, a bank probably would not lend money for a project that didn't comply with the easements.

"The easement is basically self-enforcing," he said. "But [if it's violated] the land trust would be responsible for restoring the property to its original condition, the cost of which would largely be borne by the property owner for having violated the terms of the instrument."

Tax benefits provide an incentive to preserve the land. Landowners can take a tax credit if they sell a piece of property for less than fair market value, an option that may eventually help young farmers, said New Windsor dairy farmer Jason Myers.

"It's becoming harder and harder for young people to buy farms," he said. "This could give young farmers an opportunity to purchase a farm at a more realistic price, keep it in agriculture and preserve it."

Mr. Musselman agrees. Since the Lancaster trust is mainly concerned with preserving working farms, the group maintains a farmland registry to match sellers with buyers.

In addition, some landowners simply want to preserve the open spaces they have grown to love.

"We worked hard to bring this farm to what it is today," said Mrs. Carl-Heinrich Asmis, who deeded the conservation easement for her Sykesville farm to the Maryland Environmental Trust.

Mrs. Asmis is to be recognized at this morning's meeting with her daughter, Helene Clifford, and Granville Bixler of New Windsor for donating land to the Maryland Environmental Trust, which is similar to the Carroll County Land Trust.

"More and more of the country in Carroll County is being eaten up by development, and I hated the idea of seeing everything go," she said.

"I wanted to leave some peace down here in South Carroll."

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