Revived land program thrives Preservation of farms is goal

October 26, 1993|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,Staff Writer

Howard County's farmland preservation program, which was shut down for nearly two years to give officials time to react to its eye-popping success, is back in business with most of its old luster intact.

County officials have made it harder for participating land owners to receive top dollar for surrendering their development rights to the county, but the new criteria have slowed applications only a little.

"More information is required at the application stage," said Donna Mennitto, the program administrator, "but that should facilitate getting to settlement.

"We don't have everyone thinking they will be offered top dollar and then become frustrated at what they will receive six months later. They have a pretty good idea now what they will be offered."

The new rules seem to be working. Since July, when the county began receiving applications again, 10 owners possessing a total of 1,910 acres have asked for inclusion.

A sluggish economy and the county's 30-year, tax-free easement purchase agreement continue to be powerful incentives. Under the easement agreement, the county withholds payment of all but a small part of the purchase price for 30 years but pays tax-free interest of at least 6.5 percent on the balance twice a year. Before the two-year interruption, the county paid at least 8 percent interest.

Land owners who enter the program agree never to develop their land. They may sell their property, but the development ban continues in perpetuity.

If their property is accepted into the program, owners in the current batch of applicants will be paid $6,600 to $3,200 an acre, depending on the quality of the land.

Janet and Walter Beck, whose 723-acre property is more than twice the size of any other parcel ever considered for the program, were among 29 property owners on a waiting list when the program was put on hold two years ago.

They chose to apply again, Ms. Beck said, "because we wanted to remain a working farm. The only way in this day and age for that to be possible is to go into a program" such as Howard County's.

The county has not made an offer on any of the properties in this batch of applications.

If, for example, it paid top dollar for the Beck farm -- a property officials have coveted for years -- the easement price would be $4.8 million, most of which would be paid in 30 years.

The county unveiled its tax-free financing plan in 1989. Until then, the program had been languishing to such an extent that by 1988, only one property owner had sought admission. The program seemed stalled at 7,218 acres.

Since the new financing was begun in 1989, 6,736 acres have been added, 48 percent of the total. If all of the properties now applying for the program are accepted, 15,864 acres will have been preserved, nearly 80 percent of the county's goal for the program.

The county hopes to achieve its overall goal of keeping 30,000 acres from development by using cluster techniques and exchanging development rights program in addition to the preservation program.

When the new financing began, the county set aside $55 million for the purchase of development rights, of which $19 million is left. If the county acquires all of the properties in the current batch of applications, the cost would be $11.5 million, leaving $7.5 million to close out the program.

It is uncertain, however, whether the county will purchase easements on all of the property in the current batch.

Ms. Mennitto said she and the Agricultural Land Preservation Advisory Board will not know how much money is available to spend on this batch until the board's Nov. 15 public hearing on the applications. In the past, the county has authorized about $8 million per batch.

"It's possible not everyone in this batch will get an offer," Ms. Mennitto said. "In the past, everyone got an offer. People who don't get one this time will slide to the next batch" which will be put together between January and July.

Because of the new rules -- properties are now ranked on a point system with the highest ranked properties being offered the best price per acre -- some property owners appear to be waiting to see how the new system works before committing themselves.

When the program was halted in February 1992, 29 previously approved owners were on the waiting list, including the 10 in the current batch. The new criteria meant that some properties were no longer eligible for the program, and several other owners withdrew because they would no longer have gotten the price they wanted.

The board will review the applications after the Nov. 15 hearing and determine what properties to recommend for the program.

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