Easing into preservation HOWARD COUNTY

February 01, 1993

Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker has proposed legislation to create the third version of the county's farmland preservation program in 13 years. He's hoping the third time proves the charm.

In its first form, from 1980 to 1988, the program paid much less for easements than developers were offering at the time. These were the go-go mid-'80s, after all. Builders snatched up properties while the county barely made a dent in its goal of saving 30,000 acres in the rural west county.

So the program was revamped in 1988. The county stopped paying the full price in cash up front and began compensating landowners with tax-free payments of the interest on the agreed-on sale price over 30 years. A balloon payment, funded with federal "zero-coupon" bonds, is to be made at the end of the 30-year period.

Howard's program became a model for preservation programs nationwide and grew so successful locally that the government was flooded with easement applications.

For many in the county, though, the program was too successful. When the recession hit, critics worried that the government was throwing away money by enriching landowners, including some whose land was virtually undevelopable anyway. There was even sentiment to help balance the county budget with the $15 million acquisition fund. Mr. Ecker and the County Council heard the rumblings and decided early last year to put the program on hold.

Now comes Mr. Ecker's new proposal, which the council will consider tonight. The aim of the plan is to toughen the easement approval process so that only the most attractive parcels of land -- attractive especially to potential developers -- would be saved.

Yet even with a maximum easement payment of $6,600 an acre, could the county outbid developers for the best tracts? Mr. Ecker believes it could by offering landowners such incentives as the tax-free payments, plus the ability to stay on the property.

Also, with the program up and running again, the county could move quickly to obtain significant pieces of land. Time is of the essence. The recession is suppressing land prices and interest rates. This tight economy won't last forever, but while it does, the county would have a prime opportunity to make hay on farmland preservation.

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