Farmland protection programs do land-office business in county

September 25, 1994|By Phyllis Brill | Phyllis Brill,Sun Staff Writer

Harford County farmers hope to add another 2,100 acres of farmland to the growing store of property permanently protected by the Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Foundation.

In a presentation to the County Council last week, Harford County agricultural planner Mike Paone said that 13 farms -- a total of about 2,100 acres -- make up the county's latest batch of applications to the state program, which purchases easements to protect the land from development.

Harford County currently has about 6,900 acres permanently protected by the state program. Another 18,500 acres in the county are temporarily protected by being on farms that are designated as preservation "districts" in the state program. As districts, those farms have committed themselves to preserved from developed for at least five years.

"Harford County has far exceeded any other county in the state" in its efforts to protect its farmland, Mr. Paone told the council.

In addition to the state program, the county last year initiated its own farmland protection program, which is financed by the county transfer tax.

The Harford County Land Preservation Program, which is similar to the state program, purchases development rights from farmers in exchange for them permanently maintaining the land for farm use and for property tax breaks that can reach 100 percent in rare cases.

Once land is preserved as farmland in the program, it can never be developed for any other use even if the farm is sold.

The county program, which has been in operation for only a year, already has protected 3,300 acres -- either permanently, through the purchase of easements, or temporarily, by designating the farms as preservation districts that are banned from development for five years.

The combined state and county efforts have brought to more than 28,000 acres the total amount of Harford farmland that is under some kind of protection, Mr. Paone told the council.

That number represents about 28 percent of the active agricultural land in the county, he said. It's a statistic he's proud of.

"We've protected more acreage this year through our local program than any other county in the state," he said.

The county's track record in the state program isn't bad either, said Iva Frantz, an administrative specialist with the Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Foundation.

"Each cycle, Harford sends applications for about 16 farms. They might only get four approved at a time, but that's still pretty good for one county. Some counties only have one farm approved at a time."

The state program, which is financed by the state transfer tax, requires a farm to be a designated preservation district for at least five years before its owners can apply for permanent protection through easement sales. Once an application is made, it can take months for approval.

State program officials consider easement applications from the counties every six months. Those not accepted for permanent status on the first try can reapply in the next cycle. The state received more than 200 applications in the first cycle of fiscal 1994, but was able to make offers to purchase only 26 properties, according to state records. And the number of applicants is growing.

About 8 percent of the acreage in the state that is protected as Maryland agricultural preservation districts is located in Harford County, Ms. Franz said. The county accounts for 5.8 percent of the state's total acreage purchased in easement sales since the program began in 1979, she said.

That's not an impressive percentage, Mr. Paone admits, but that's because some other counties have more farmland in general than Harford.

Carroll County, for example, has the largest share of state-protected farmland in Maryland. It has nearly 42,000 acres of protected farmland, half of which is permanently protected by purchased easements. As the leading county in the state program, Carroll is home to 16 percent of the state's preservation districts and 19 percent of its easements.

Caroline County, on the Eastern Shore, has the second-largest chunk of protected land, with 13 percent of the districts and 16.2 percent of the easements, Ms. Frantz said.

In the Baltimore metropolitan area, she said, "Harford, Baltimore and Carroll have the most participation. Each sends about 30 applications a year."

In Baltimore County, about 120,000 acres -- or 31 percent of the land in the county -- are protected by the county's Agricultural Preservation Zone, a zoning designation that severely limits density of development, said Donald Outen of that county's Department of Environmental Protection and Resource Management.

About 9,700 acres of that zone are also protected by the Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Program's easement purchases. Another 6,000 acres are in the Maryland Environmental Trust Program.

Howard County, which like Harford offers farmers a locally managed preservation program, accounts for only 3.6 percent of the state's purchased easements. Mr. Paone said Howard's program served as a model for the Harford program.

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