Harford's rural plan: the sequel

January 18, 1993

Harford County's reborn Rural Plan made its debut at a public hearing last week to near-uniform approval from speakers and county council members alike.

Only last fall, the council refused to take a vote on the same plan. The hearings had drawn opponents and skeptics of the plan, which would pay farmers to keep their land from development as a county amenity.

What happened in the meantime? Mainly, the county planners did a better job of explaining the idea to farmers who own the land. They took out language that suggested a government land grab, and emphasized the voluntary nature of the plan.

This proposal won't please everyone but it aims in the right direction. Harford has lost a third of its farmland to development in the past 25 years; the low cost of rural land for homebuilding has been a major factor in the county's unceasing growth. Retaining the rural character of Harford, while permitting development in clustered areas, would balance needs of growth with green space.

Voters last year approved a maximum 1 percent transfer tax on real estate sales to finance the purchase of the easements or development rights through county bonds. These rights can be transferred for higher-density building in designated growth areas, which will surely stir opposition from people already living in those areas.

The overall impact of the plan is likely to lead to higher land prices, as supply shrinks. That will mean higher taxes for newcomers, but also for older residents whose homes are reassessed to new market values. Resulting higher land values will also have the contrary effect of tempting farmers still outside the program to cash in on development instead of preservation.

There remains a serious question whether the transfer tax will be sufficient for the preservation program to reach its goal -- even if farmers are willing to participate -- of buying purchase rights for 30,000 acres. The tax would yield about $2 million a year for the program; rights will go for a minimum $2,000 per acre, officials guess. That's at least $60 million, or 30 years spending at current rates. Either the county's goal is too ambitious, or another significant source of funding will be needed. New residents won't be the only ones to pay for the open fields. Current residents will, too.

These concerns need to be fully explored before the council approves this Rural Plan, instead of racing to plow them under in a bucolic euphoria.

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