Win-Win on Agricultural Preservation

March 24, 1994

Kermit, the Muppet mega-star, had it right when he sang, "It ain't easy to be green."

As with frogs, so it has gone for Howard County's efforts to protect rural farmland -- until now. After years of trying unsuccessfully to lure Howard farmers into a program to preserve their land from development, the county is finally getting it right. Next month, the County Council is expected to allot $11.2 million toward the purchase of easements on 10 properties, to he transaction means that landowners involved will pledge not to sell their land for development for at least 30 years. With that, the county will have forestalled a total of 15,794 acres from being transformed into more suburban sprawl or another mini-Columbia.

The farm preservation program, because it is voluntary and benefits all parties, is the rational way of curbing unfettered development. It is certainly preferable to the approach taken by many anti-growth activists, which is to try and bar landowners from using their property in ways they are legally entitled to do.

Making the program work, however, has not been easy. In 1988, the effort virtually ground to a halt for lack of interest. The county was offering too small a carrot to farmers, who, in the booming 1980s, rightly concluded that they could get a far better price from developers. At that point, only 7,218 acres had been preserved and only one applicant was under consideration.

Now, officials expect that by the time the program is closed next year, 17,000 rural acres -- just 3,000 less than originally targeted -- will be preserved. Success will have been achieved by offering a more attractive package, which includes purchasing the easements at roughly half of what a developer would pay for the land. Landowners won't get the proceeds for 30 years, but they will receive tax-free interest payments twice a year during that period.

Is it worth what the county is willing to pay? On many levels, yes.

Not only will it satisfy the need to maintain existing rural land in Howard, it is consistent with efforts to protect the environment and to boost agriculture as an industry. Politically, it should also reassure those alarmed by the rapid development of the county.

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