County officials seek more funds for farms

January 29, 1995|By Amy L. Miller | Amy L. Miller,Sun Staff Writer

Maryland's farmland preservation program is facing a financial crisis, and legislators should act now to keep it from folding, county officials and farmers told the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee Friday.

"The chances of selling a [development rights] easement with the current funding are slight," said John Murphy, a Baltimore attorney who has represented farmers in the program and who is secretary of Maryland Environmental Trust.

Mr. Murphy and about a dozen others, primarily from Carroll County, testified in support of a bill sponsored by Sen. Larry E. Haines that would increase the percentage of real estate transfer tax money spent on farmland preservation.

"These farmers need some reasonable assurance that they will be able to sell an easement during the time they are in the program," Mr. Murphy said. "The [current situation] leads to lack of interest in the program. Once these farmers move away from it, they're gone."

Under the program, farmers wishing to sell an easement enter a preservation district and promise they will not develop the property for five years. During that time, they attempt to sell an easement to the state.

In exchange for the easement -- the difference between the land's agricultural value and what it would be worth if developed -- the owner keeps the property as farmland forever and accepts a lower appraisal.

The problem for many farmland owners is that the state's recent budget crunch has prompted legislators to take money away from the program.

The program has applications for $40 million worth of easements but can purchase only $10 million in easements per year, Mr. Murphy said.

Mr. Haines, a Westminster Republican, said his bill would help remedy the situation by increasing from 13.2 to 22.4 the percentage of real estate transfer taxes the preservation program receives.

Currently, 75 percent of the transfer taxes are given to Program Open Space and 2.6 percent is distributed to the Heritage Conservation Fund.

Program Open Space purchases land for recreation; the heritage fund distributes money to heritage societies around the state to be used for historic programs.

Under his bill, Project Open Space would continue to receive more money than it has in recent years because the legislature no longer would be taking money from the fund to balance the budget, Mr. Haines said.

"Without this committee adding to the fund, ag land preservation is in jeopardy," he said. "The costs do not outweigh the benefits.

"There are long-term benefits to all citizens by this more equitable division through more open space, protection of the Chesapeake Bay and the environment."

"More money is needed immediately," said William Powel, administrator of Carroll County's farmland preservation program. "These farm owners need the money to improve their cash flow, reinvest in their farming operations and stimulate the economy.

"Now, they will probably come out of the program because their five years are up and they will develop their property to meet their cash needs," he said.

Increasing money for the program also helps the state get more for their money, Mr. Murphy said.

jTC Easements are sold in a competitive bidding process and, often, the state receives land for much lower than the appraised value, he said. Making the bidding more intense by bringing more farmers into the program might encourage owners to take lower prices for the property, Mr. Murphy said.

Supporting the program could also help achieve Gov. Parris N. Glendening's desires to control growth and help existing state industries, supporters said.

"Agriculture is a very important industry in Maryland that needs a critical mass of land to survive," said Kristin Forsythe of the Valley's Planning Council in Baltimore County. "This is one of the most relevant tools we have to prevent sprawl."

Representatives from Program Open Space and the Maryland Recreation and Parks Association opposed the bill.

"We support ag land preservation, but not at a cost to Program Open Space funding," Sheila Franklin of the Recreation and Parks Association said repeatedly during her testimony.

"The budget cut took a toll on Program Open Space as well. We had a funding loss of $200 million. Chances were lost to permanently preserve open space from development that cannot be reclaimed."

Some members of the committee also questioned the need for the adjustment, citing the success Howard and Harford counties have had with local preservation and transferable development right programs.

Transferable development rights programs allow a developer to purchase an easement from a farmer and increase the density of development on a piece of land in a more urban area.

Sen. Thomas Middleton, a Democrat from Charles County, also suggested that the bill be amended to allow counties to decide whether to use the money for Program Open Space or farmland preservation.

"Charles County is the third fastest-growing county in the state," Mr. Middleton, a Charles County farmer said. "Charles County would not support this because we need the provisions for ball fields."

Mr. Haines said he had considered that option, but only as a last resort.

"That would only increase our local funding by $75,000," he said. "That would be some help, but not much."

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