Nobody disputes the need to save Harford's dwindling farmland, but some residents say a tax on real estate transfers isn't the answer.
As more than 100 people turned out last week for a hearing on the tax, which would raise money for agricultural preservation and school construction, Realtors and homebuilders led the opposition.
"Maryland's settlement costs already are one of the highest in the nation," said Don Stephen, a Churchville resident representing the Harford County Homebuilders Association.
Like other opponents, he said the burden of preserving open space should fall on all county residents and called a transfer tax an "unreliable" source of funds because of inevitable fluctuations in the market.
Debate on the transfer tax resumes at a public work session at 6 p.m. Tuesday in County Council chambers.
The tax, proposed by County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann in January, would amount to 1 percent of a property's selling price, excluding the first $30,000. For example, the tax on a $100,000 house would be $700.
County officials said the tax, which would be levied against anyone taking possession of property, would raise about $4 million a year. Half of that would be used to buy easements on agricultural land and half would go to site acquisition and construction of schools.
County officials had called the tax 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. The council is expected to vote on the transfer tax legislation package on April 6.
Michael Leaf, a Bel Air lawyer, called the plan flawed. "Schools benefit everybody in the county, not just people who transfer property," he said.
"And agricultural preservation makes the whole county a nicer place to live. So why isn't everybody paying for it?"
Mr. Leaf suggested the council and executive try to find alternative financing. "The County Council has to review in the next three months each dollar to be spent" in the next fiscal year, he said. "Why not try to find money in the general fund before deciding it has to be funded by a transfer tax?"
Representatives of parent-teacher groups have collected hundreds of signatures favoring the transfer tax, arguing that the county desperately needs money the tax would generate to build schools.
The county school board, however, hedged on its support.
Anne D. Sterling, the board's president, said it would take no stand on the tax.
"But we urge you to find a way" to raise money for school construction, she said. In years to come, Mrs. Sterling said, schools will be centers for not only education, but also for community services.
The tax proposal left more than one council member unimpressed.
Council President Jeffrey D. Wilson has said he would prefer raising existing property taxes to a new tax. He pointed out that the transfer tax would be levied not only against newcomers to Harford County, but on any sale or inheritance of property.