Rehrmann seeks property trade tax to save farmland

January 10, 1993|By Carol L. Bowers | Carol L. Bowers,Staff Writer

Harford would levy a new tax on property transfers to raise money to preserve farmland and to pay for school construction projects under a proposal by the county executive.

The tax proposed by County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann to be paid by those taking possession of property would be 1 percent of the selling price, excluding the first $30,000.

County officials say that they have yet to determine how much revenue the tax would raise, but called it a key element in the effort to preserve dwindling farmland.

Harford has about 96,000 acres in rural or agricultural land, down from 149,000 acres in 1965, county statistics show.

Mrs. Rehrmann wants the county to pay farmers who agree not to allow their land to be developed.

"This will provide a dedicated source of funds for the [agricultural-preservation] program and will allow us to predict how much we'll have each year to purchase the easements or development rights," said Stoney Fraley, chief of comprehensive planning for the county Department of Planning and Zoning.

Legislation to create the tax and pay farmers who preserve their rTC land is scheduled to be introduced at the Jan. 19 County Council meeting.

The proposed tax would go toward the purchase of farmers' "development rights" -- the right to build one house for every 10 acres on land zoned for agricultural use.

In exchange for as yet undetermined compensation from the county, the farmer would agree not to let land be developed.

Farmers would be paid in annual tax-free increments for 20 years, receiving a principal payment at the end of that period.

The other half of the proceeds from the tax would be used for school construction.

The executive's legislation is to be introduced a week after Tuesday's scheduled public hearing on the formal blueprint for agricultural preservation, known as the Rural Plan.

The plan, which county officials have been working on for more than two years, was derailed last fall when some farmers objected, fearing that they would be locked into another set of government rules.

"Farmers were still a little bit mad about other issues, such as new Environmental Protection Agency regulations and the forest conservation plan" -- requiring a certain number of trees to be retained on property that is developed, said Michael Paone, the county's agricultural planner.

"And clearly some farmers felt they weren't well-informed."

The Rural Plan has been revamped to make it clear that farmers' participation in the effort to preserve land is voluntary, Mr. Paone said.

"If a farmer doesn't want to be involved with anything in the Rural Plan, it doesn't affect him," Mr. Fraley said.

"He'll still be able to sell his land to developers if that's what he wants," he said. He pointed out that the land-preservation program is the first of several options that will be made available to farmers as the Rural Plan is put into effect.

Mr. Fraley noted that voters approved the method of paying the farmers for their development rights in a referendum last fall.

"The voters approved the installment payment structure," said Mr. Fraley.

"But the way the council drafted the language of the referendum, it identified the property transfer tax as the funding mechanism. The voters were 3-to-1 in favor of the referendum. To me, that's a mandate."

Purchasing development rights would enable the county to control how fast agricultural land is developed. Farmers would retain ownership and use of their land while receiving financial benefits from their investment, county administration officials say.

"It does not take rural development out of the picture, but it does help us control it," Mr. Fraley said.

"We want development in the 'development envelope' [the area around Bel Air] where we can supply a full range of infrastructure services," he said. "When you take development into the rural area, the cost of transporting children to schools and building roads becomes more costly."

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