Preserving Maryland's Farmlands

June 30, 1993

"Buy land, they're not making any more of it!" is the hoary investment advice cited by real estate pitchmen and barbershop sages.

Increasingly, however, it's become the urgent slogan of those who would preserve the verdant swaths of agricultural land from development.

Maryland's 12-year-old program of buying agricultural development rights -- the land stays in the working farmer's hands -- recently topped the 100,000-acre mark, setting a standard for the rest of the U.S. Buying these rights means the land's rural character is protected by easements.

Funded by a real estate tax and Program Open Space monies, the state farmland preservation foundation is quietly protecting a few thousand more acres a year. Meantime, Maryland loses about 50,000 acres a year to the development juggernaut. Although 2.2 million acres (a third of the state land base) remain in agricultural use, that is little more than half the farmland total of 40 years ago.

Counties have stepped up their own rural conservation programs to take up the slack, especially since state funds have been diverted for general use over the past three years.

Baltimore County launched its own program this year, although 19,500 farm acres are protected by the state. Howard County revived its program, raising the price paid for easements, or the underlying development rights. Anne Arundel allows smaller farms in its separate county program begun in 1990, with 1,100 acres preserved.

Carroll County has not only the most successful program in Maryland but also in the United States. The state program has protected over 20,000 acres permanently, and another 21,000 acres in five-year preservation districts (when permanent easements can be purchased by the state).

Carroll also has created a local program to buy easements when farms are up for sale, to keep the new owner in farming; some 600 acres will have been set aside by year's end.

Harford County's new rural plan hopes to preserve 30,000 agricultural acres, with a county realty tax and tax benefits for owners putting land into five-year districts. The county is considering transfers of development rights, as is Carroll, to let farmers sell their rights to developers (at a higher price) for use in residential areas elsewhere.

Even with these admirable county efforts, however, sustained state funding is necessary to preserve pastoral greenery. Once paved, this land will be gone forever.

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