The county's farm preservation program got a roaring kick-start last night as its advisory board recommended making offers to buy development rights from all 10 property owners who wanted them.
And among the properties the Agricultural Land Preservation Advisory Board recommended for approval was the largest ever to be considered for inclusion in the program. The nine members of the Beck family who own the 723-acre Holly House Farm, between Triadelphia and Folly Quarter roads near West Friendship, would be offered nearly $4.8 million to for their development rights.
"I think it's outstanding," said Bob Bell, who with his wife, Doris, came to hear the board unanimously recommend including their 93-acre farm near Lisbon. "All of these people have been waiting 2 1/2 years for the program to get started again. I think it was a great move on the county's part to accept all of them."
The wait was the result of the program's previous success, when it was able to offer landowners tax-free interest of at least 8 percent and threatened to use up its $55 million fund before the most desirable properties could be included.
Under slightly less attractive terms and an interest rate of at least 6.5 percent, the program was resumed in July with 10 applicants left over from the 29 seeking inclusion in the program two years ago.
Last night, the property owners at the advisory board meeting at the County Fairgrounds learned that the program has $11.5 million to purchase development rights. That is enough to make offers to them all and, if they all accept, add 1,910 acres to the program.
Now that the board has recommended including the properties, County Executive Charles I. Ecker will make the final decision on whether to make the owners an offer. To pay for the development rights, the County Council must authorize a bond sale.
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, compared to 8 percent the county pays under previous easement agreements. In exchange, the development is prohibited on the land in perpetuity, no matter how many times it is sold.
When the program first started in 1980, few property owners sought admission because it wasn't lucrative enough and developers could offer them more money.
In 1989, before the county improved the benefits to property owners by paying top dollar and adding tax-free interest as an inducement, the program was stalled at 7,218 acres. Since then, 6,736 acres have been added.
Under the new rules, properties were ranked on a point system with the highest ranked properties being offered the best price per acre.
When the program was halted, 29 previously approved owners were on the waiting list, including the 10 at last night's meeting. 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.
Some property owners complained about one aspect of the program that gave a bonus of up to $600 per acre over the previous cap of $6,000 per acre.
The problem, they said, was that without realizing exactly how the point system worked, they lost added value on their development rights.