Farmer's beloved land to be developed, after all

March 26, 1995|By Erik Nelson | Erik Nelson,Sun Staff Writer

For four decades, Malvin White could count on his farm. It was his insurance policy against hard times. It was his family after his children left home.

And as long as he lived, Howard County officials had hoped to preserve the rural charm of Mr. White's 110 acres in Woodbine.

After saving from development more than 1,000 acres nearly encircling his land, officials were eager to buy his property's development rights through the county's much publicized farmland preservation program.

But Mr. White died in 1992. And now his homestead is being carved into 26 chunks of high-priced residential real estate on a draftsman's table. Its all but certain development illustrates the limits of even an innovative farmland preservation program such as Howard's -- a program now being studied as a possible national model.

County officials made a final, apparently unsuccessful attempt last week to persuade the new owners of Mr. White's farm to consider preservation instead of development.

They emerged troubled.

"Clearly this property is in an area where there is not only [protected farmland], but some of the best farmland in the county," said county Planning and Zoning Director Joseph W. Rutter Jr.

County preservation and zoning policies are intended to put up permanent barriers to the relentless development pressure devouring western Howard's farmland.

Development took over more than 12,000 farm acres -- about 23 percent of the county's total -- between 1982 and the last agricultural census in 1992.

Meanwhile, the county has been able to buy development rights on more than 15,000 acres in western Howard, about half its goal.

But efforts to preserve many other pieces of farmland in western Howard -- one of the last major bastions of open land in the rapidly growing Baltimore-Washington corridor -- battle against rising market prices for rural land and the federal tax structure.

In the case of Mr. White's farm, its path to development began long before it was sold last August for $1 million.

In January 1992, 10 months before he died, Mr. White applied to put his property in the county's preservation program.

But his meetings with preservation officials left him with doubts about the program, and he did not pursue selling his development rights to the county, said Regina McGurk Breslin, a close friend of Mr. White's at the time of his death.

If he had, all building on the property -- except for three homesites -- would have been prohibited forever.

"I believe his biggest problem was that the money offered wasn't good, and they [officials] weren't really sure what 'forever' meant," said Ms. Breslin, who sometimes took notes at Mr. White's meetings with preservation officials.

Mr. White, suffering from a heart ailment, died in November 1992, leaving the farm to his two surviving children and five grandchildren. And, even though his children and grandchildren had been part-owners of the property before his death, they still faced federal estate taxes.

With a property valued at $1 million, estate taxes probably amounted to about $153,000, according to federal tax rules. That kind of kind of bill often forces owners to borrow heavily -- if they want to continue farming -- or sell out.

For Mr. White's seven heirs, none of whom lived on the property, there was little incentive to wait the year it takes to weave through the preservation approval process and a lot of incentive to sell.

Had they tried to save the land, they would have had to wait 30 years to receive the bulk of the price of the development rights. And the return from selling the development rights would have been only 65 percent of the property's market value of $1 million.

This is because county regulations limit the amount that the preservation program can pay to $6,600 an acre, and Mr. White's heirs wouldn't have received this upper limit from the county, officials say.

Mr. White's heirs likely would have received about $42,000 a year in tax-free interest payments, along with principal payments of about $5,000 every other year. At that rate, it would have taken the family three years to pay the estate taxes.

This couldn't compete with the $1 million market value of the land -- ironically, a value likely enhanced by the earlier preservation efforts that had saved the more than 1,000 acres abutting Mr. White's farm.

"If it hadn't been for the taxes, we would have never sold it, we would have just left it in the family," said 59-year-old Dorothy White Pumphrey, Mr. White's daughter.

Once the family sold the property last fall, county officials didn't give up hope that it could be preserved, said Donna Mennitto, administrator of the county preservation program.

Ms. Mennitto hoped that the farm's new owners, Richard V. Hoenes and his wife, Leonore, would be enticed by the program's tax benefits.

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