Saving farmland: Where next? End of farm preservation fund might not be as alarming as it seems

March 25, 1996

MARYLAND HAS been a pioneer in farmland preservation. Its 146,500 acres protected since 1980 is more than double any other state, and its $128 million investment in agricultural easements is one-fifth of the U.S. total.

So a story last week that Howard County was running out of money to continue purchasing development rights from farmers set off alarm bells. That, coupled with reports out of Carroll County about legislative mischief to ease development of farmland, was enough to stir speculation that Maryland was about to lead farm preservation on its way down. While the monkey business in Carroll is indefensible, the end of the farm fund in Howard might not be a case of retrenchment. It might just reflect a movement in the throes of adolescence.

The need to preserve farmland rose alongside the real estate "gold rush" the past decade, as subdivisions took root deeper in the countryside. Howard was spending $8 million a year in the late 1980s to buy "development rights" from farmers, two or three times as much as recently. The county made tax-free yearly interest payments to farmers, with an agreement of a lump sum after 30 years. The farmers, in turn, got to keep farming and had cash to withstand the sweet scent of development offers.

Having run out of money, Howard will rely on two strategies that are apt to come more into vogue as budgets tighten: allowing farmers to sell their "development rights" to builders, so the builders can add density to their developments elsewhere, and cluster zoning.

This transfer of development rights might be the best of all worlds: farmers get to farm, developers get to develop, sprawl gets contained and private, not public, dollars grease for the whole apparatus. An expert in the field, however, calls development-rights transfers the "nuclear energy of farm preservation": If it was so fool-proof, it would be more in use.

Perhaps most important, Howard is looking to keep farmers viable after they protect the land, by shifting to uses more compatible in a metro area: pick-your-own farms, aqua-culture, bed and breakfasts, agra-tourism. Agra-tourism! Some dairymen

may respond with a good chuckle. But they as much as anyone recognize that to remain viable, farming, like farm preservation, is a field in flux.

Pub Date: 3/25/96

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