More green for green

January 05, 1995

The proposal by state Senator Larry Haines, R-5th, to nearly double the amount of money for farmland preservation under Program Open Space is a step in the right direction.

During the past four years, state support for Maryland's farmland preservation program virtually disappeared and the effort to prevent prime agricultural land from being overrun by residential development has lagged.

The POS initiative, funded through the state's share of the real property transfer tax, was designed to finance the purchase of land or easements for open space. Agricultural preservation now receives about 13 percent of the program's funds. Mr. Haines' proposal would increase it to slightly more than 22 percent.

During the past four years, Gov. William Donald Schaefer and legislators raided the farm preservation kitty to cover the state's budget deficit. As a result, open space purchases for recreation use dropped off precipitously. The impact on the state's program to protect vanishing farmland was even more devastating. Due to a lack of funds, no easements were purchased by the state in 1991 and 1992. In fiscal year 1993, only about 3,400 acres were purchased for the easement program, compared to 12,700 acres in 1990, the peak year.

Carroll County, which wants to protect 100,000 acres of farmland, bought easements on just 191 acres in 1993. In the eight previous years, the county had moved to protect about 20,000 acres from development. Similarly in Howard, which wants to preserve farms in the county's western section, no state easements were purchased in 1993. In the eight prior years, 4,000 county acres were protected.

With residential development continuing to consume vast tracts of farmland, Mr. Haines' proposal should be enacted. However, his measure fails to address the program's more fundamental problem: It is too dependant on the real estate transfer tax.

The program is flush with money during the boom years of an active real estate market. But when real estate sales slow, as they have during the first half of 1990s, the money dries up for the purchase of easements. Yet it is at these very times when farmers are more apt to participate in the program, because development prospects aren't as bright. Mr. Haines' bill is another step toward ensuring that Maryland's dwindling amount of farmland is not simply future fodder for subdivisions, shopping centers and parking lots.

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