Last call on funds to save farmland Officials intend to end preservation program after this year

March 21, 1996|By Dan Morse | Dan Morse,SUN STAFF

Mary Zepp knows the pressures that western Howard County farmers face. Real estate agents started calling her 10 years ago right after her husband died.

"It was just like buzzards," said Mrs. Zepp, who since then has listened to proposal after proposal to carve her 150-acre farm near Lisbon into housing lots to feed the rapid growth of the Washington-Baltimore corridor.

But Mrs. Zepp, 74, does not want the farm where she has lived her whole life to become a housing development.

So as she prepares to move soon into a retirement home, Mrs. Zepp is asking the Howard County Farmland Preservation Program to buy her land and keep it undeveloped forever.

It's a good thing she didn't wait another year.

County officials intend to end the preservation program after this year, even though they will fall about 4,000 acres short of their goal to preserve 20,000 acres.

All of the preserved land is within about 95,000 acres of the western part of the county that is not served by public sewers, said James R. "Rob" Moxley III, chairman of the Farmland Preservation Board.

The last five applicants to the farmland preservation program including Mrs. Zepp have filed their applications.

Officials say they have enough money allocated to buy three or four of the farms, but not all. After that, they will shut down the program for at least the near future, ending a key tool for county planners trying to manage development pressures in western Howard.

However, planners say they can handle growth using existing zoning regulations.

"We're not going to develop the entire county," said Joseph Rutter, director of the Department of Planning and Zoning.

Under the program, the county has bought farms without having to pay the full price for the land for 30 years. During that time, the farmers who sell their land receive tax-free interest on the amount of the sale price. This appeals to many farmers concerned about capital gains taxes on sales to developers.

The county buys 30-year bonds at about 10 cents on the dollar to fund each farm purchase.

However, the yearly interest payments paid through real estate transfer taxes have stretched the county's limit. These payments now total about $3 million annually.

If transfer tax revenues grow substantially, the county could reopen the Farmland Preservation Program. To keep it running now, though, Howard County Council members and other county officials said they would have to tap other sources of funds funds that just aren't available.

John W. Taylor, a slow-growth advocate, acknowledged that the county is hard pressed financially, but he said that it ought to find the money to keep the program going. By buying more farms, he said, the county can avoid the cost of new roads and schools associated with more development.

"I think it would be a wise investment," he said.

But Martha Clark, the past president of the Howard County Farm Bureau, disagrees.

"There is only so much money to give away," said Mrs. Clark, who, with her husband, owns a dairy, beef and grain farm in Glenelg. And she said the program has served its purpose, because farmers who have wanted to participate have had their chance for 13 years.

That still leaves the question: Without the Farmland Preservation Program, how can Howard's farmers be expected to not give in to the hungry developers?

The Farm Bureau's Mrs. Clark, as well as county planners, are counting on three initiatives to help preserve farmland:

* Cluster zoning, whereby farmers can sell part of their farms for relatively small, 1-acre lots while keeping most of the land for agriculture.

* Transferring development rights. Farmers can sell their development rights to a developer who is building homes on another piece of land. That developer could then place more lots on the other piece of land while the farm must stay undeveloped.

* More marketing and public education. Part of what makes farming so difficult is that new, nonfarming residents in western Howard complain about odor, loose cattle and slow tractors that drive along the roads. Mrs. Clark and county officials hope to educate them. She also wants to open markets for new types of agriculture in Howard, such as berry farms.

For now, though, Mrs. Zepp and four other farm owners hope to get the last spots in the preservation program.

The four are: Robert Romiti of Baltimore, who owns a farm on Blooms Lane; Thomas O. Roby, who lives on his Clarksville farm; Lambert Cissel of Woodbine who owns a farm off Daisy Road; and John Lee Carroll, a New York City attorney who owns Carroll Mill Farm, which is part of the historic Doughoregan Manor west of Ellicott City.

The Cissels and Robys say they have other options if they are not chosen for the programs or if the county does not offer them enough money.

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