Haines sees dire straits for farms

April 06, 1995|By Amy L. Miller | Amy L. Miller,Sun Staff Writer

State Sen. Larry E. Haines fought for his farmland preservation bill in the House Appropriations Committee yesterday by warning that Maryland is in danger of losing nearly 25 percent of its agricultural land by 2020.

That loss is a threat that could destroy farming as an industry in the state, said Mr. Haines, a Westminster Republican.

"Agriculture is still the No. 1 industry in the state," he said.

But he said development trends indicate that Maryland could have 525,000 acres of new development by 2020, an area equal to Baltimore and Howard counties combined.

Mr. Haines' bill, as amended in the Senate, would designate 14.5 percent of real estate transfer taxes for farmland preservation, earmark 83.5 percent for Program Open Space and give 2 percent to the Heritage Conservation Fund.

The proposal also would allow individual counties to use some of their Program Open Space money for agricultural land preservation.

Program Open Space now receives 84.2 percent of the transfer taxes and the Heritage Fund 2.6 percent. Program Open Space buys land for recreation.

The Heritage Fund preserves wetlands and other habitats for endangered species.

In 1992, the Census of Agriculture indicated that Maryland had 2.2 million acres of farmland.

The continuing loss of agricultural land led the Chesapeake Bay Foundation to testify against Mr. Haines' bill, which would increase the percentage of transfer tax money going to farmland preservation.

"We would urge, and offer our participation, in a serious study of agricultural losses and how to raise the $20 million this program needs," said Nina Satina of the foundation. "It really needs a shot in the arm."

Foundation officials, while strongly supporting agricultural land preservation, feel the program could be more efficient and that farms most pressured to fall to development should be targeted for preservation, she said.

"We're 100 percent in favor of agricultural land preservation," Ms. Satina said. "We're opposed to directing more money to the program without looking at the root causes of the problems.

"We have to decide what is the best use of the taxpayers money, buying land way out in rural counties where there is little development pressure or creating a green belt around Bel Air where it is needed."

Committee members pointed out that program participation is voluntary. Also, targeting some areas to the exclusion of other counties would likely bring an outcry of protest from residents, they said.

"When we tried to do that with 2020, the citizens blew that out of the water," said Del. John Frank Slade III, referring to the statewide planning program legislators tried to pass several years ago.

"It would eventually undermine the future of the program," said Mr. Slade, a Democrat from St. Mary's County. "It may not be perfect, but it is a good program."

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