Council OKs $11.2 million payout to protect 1,861 acres forever

April 05, 1994|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,Sun Staff Writer

The County Council agreed last night to pay 10 landowners a total of $11.2 million to keep 1,861 rural acres out of development.

"I am very pleased that we are protecting the county's assets," Councilman Paul R. Farragut said as he cast his vote last night. Mr. Farragut, a 4th District Democrat, was instrumental in persuading county officials to tighten the criteria for admission to the program.

The 10 properties, the first added to the county agricultural land-preservation program in two years, will bring to 15,794 the total number of acres preserved in perpetuity under the program

After last night, only $7.5 million will remain in the program -- enough to preserve about 1,291 acres more, assuming last night's average price of $6,027 an acre. The preservation board will begin receiving applications today from landowners who hope to be included in the final batch of properties accepted into the program.

Participating landowners are paid a maximum of $6,600 an acre to keep their properties from development. The larger the parcel, the more the owners are paid. Payment of the purchase price is deferred 30 years, but owners receive tax-free interest twice a year of at least 6.5 percent on the principal.

On a $5 million purchase, the largest approved last night, the owner will receive about $325,000 a year in tax-free interest. The owners also received a very small amount of the principal every two years.

The program became very attractive to landowners in the past few years as the economy went into a decline. Many owners pushed to get into the program before it ran out of money. Properties were being accepted that Mr. Farragut felt didn't belong. Many county officials agreed that the county was not getting the best value for its dollar and the program was put on hold and revised.

Before the revisions, the county was accepting isolated properties of less than 85 acres. The largest of last night's 10 submissions was 723 acres. The other nine properties averaged 126 acres.

Mr. Farragut said the newest additions to the preservation program mean that there will be 1,000-acre stretches of undeveloped land in the western county for generations to come. In addition, the contiguous acres will provide a "critical mass" that should keep the county's agricultural business flourishing, he said.

Although dairy farming and cattle farming may be waning, other agricultural uses, such as tree farming or horse stables, are growing within the county, Mr. Farragut said. The county's pleasure horse industry, which does not include race horses, is a $58 million-a-year business employing nearly 10,000 people, he said.

Tree farming, especially the planting and harvesting of black walnut trees, is becoming an international enterprise, he said. Black walnut logs grown in the county are shipped from the Port of Baltimore to England for use in automobile interiors, Mr. Farragut said.

Councilman Charles C. Feaga, whose legislative assistant is the son of the owner of the largest property accepted into the program last night, said he had no compunction about joining the other four council members in approving the 10 purchases.

Mr. Feaga, a 5th District Republican, said some people had called him this week and suggested that he abstain.

He said he has been on record for years as a supporter of the program and saw no reason to abstain from voting.

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