Time May Run Out On Saving Farms


January 31, 1993|By BRIAN SULLAM

Bill Powel is worried that Carroll County's agricultural preservation program, considered the most successful in the nation, is running out of time.

Mr. Powel fears that Carroll's farmers will lose interest in the program, which he heads, because it is so low on funds. The state's fiscal crisis has helped to deplete it.

The program was designed to preserve 100,000 acres of county farmland. But during the past 11 years, the county has been able to purchase easements -- a right to prohibit development and guarantee that farming will continue -- on only 20,000 acres.

At that rate, it would take the county 44 years to obtain easements on the remaining 80,000 acres -- and Mr. Powel doesn't think the county has that much time to spare.

It has been three years since any agricultural easements have been purchased (although three are now in the final stages of approval), and Mr. Powel says the program may be losing "credibility" with farmers.

"A psychology of impermanence is beginning to set in, particularly in South Carroll," Mr. Powel says. "Instead of thinking that farming will continue forever, the farmers begin to see that farming is displaced. When this happens, they begin to think about selling the land for development."

Mr. Powel, a former Howard County dairy farmer, is well acquainted with that psychological state. He moved his cows from Howard County to Carroll in 1976 when it became clear that Columbia was overrunning the surrounding countryside and making it difficult to continue farming.

Signs of that phenomenon have already appeared in South Carroll. He cited the example of the Woodbine farming family, whose son has decided to purchase a farm in Indiana rather than farm in Maryland, and the complaints from suburbanites who occasionally get stuck on roads behind slow-moving farm machinery.

Ironically, it is often the people who live in suburbanized areas of the county who become the most vociferous proponents of retaining the rural character. They usually awaken to the fact that farmland is disappearing -- after it's too late.

"The public commitment comes only when it is too late, and the land is too expensive," Mr. Powel says.

Economics is the key to preserving farming. As long as farms are profitable, farming will continue. However, if farming becomes a marginal business, any right-thinking farmer is going to take his considerable capital investment (primarily in the form of land) and convert it into another investment with a higher return and less risk.

Retirement is the other time farmers think of cashing out. For most farmers, their land is their retirement fund. In order to make use of it, farmers have to convert their acreage into cash. This is when blandishments from developers look very attractive.

For those farmers and farm families who are interested in continuing farming, the easement program offers them a financial inducement to keep the land in agriculture. The program is designed to pay them the difference between the value of their land if developed and the value if kept in agriculture.

The problem is that the difference between those two prices is beginning to widen, making the purchase of easements more costly. The same amount of money doesn't buy what it did 11 years ago when the program started.

In Carroll, 26 owners of farms applied to participate in the program last year. But because they asked so much money for their easements, the state may be able to buy easements on only five farms.

In addition to the higher prices of land, the lack of money is also hampering the program.

Gov. William Donald Schaefer's decision three years ago to raid $17 million that had been set aside to acquire farmlands is the immediate cause of the shortage of money. In addition, the state Board of Public Works has not sold the final $8.5 million increment of a $12 million bond authorization that was intended to finance the acquisition of farmland.

County officials, who believe in the value of agricultural preservation, are examining other means of paying for the easements because the current methods are not generating enough money to preserve agriculture.

One of the more promising strategies, according to Mr. Powel, is the concept known as transfer of development rights, or TDRs.

In order to develop land that is zoned residential, industrial or business, developers would buy TDRs from farmers. The idea has been bandied in planning and development circles. A number of localities have incorporated TDRs as a means of controlling development and channeling it to designated areas.

The challenge for the county will be to get the system of TDRs up and running before land prices rise to the point where farming doesn't make sense from an economic point of view.

While Mr. Powel's job is preserving agricultural land, he doesn't want public money thrown away needlessly. For example, preserving agriculture in parts of highly urbanized counties doesn't make sense from a farming standpoint.

"It makes no sense for the public to buy expensive land when there is other valuable farm land available," Mr. Powel says.

Carroll's window of opportunity is still open, but it may close sooner than we think.

Brian Sullam is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

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