Split-level sprawl vs. the family farm Way of life: The state program to preserve farmland is critically short of money, causing some to question whether its method for buying land should take into account not only the farm but the farmer as well.

April 23, 1996|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,SUN STAFF

Five generations of Merrymans have tilled the land in the village of Trenton, growing corn and raising cattle while rural Baltimore County turned into suburbia. And John Merryman would like to ensure that the farm his ancestors started in 1881 remains intact, safe from the onslaught of split-levels.

But he and many other farmers in Maryland have been unable to permanently protect their land through the state's agricultural land preservation program.

Meanwhile, the state has paid millions to wealthy landowners, including a Worthington Valley fox-hunting club, to prevent them from developing their properties.

But unlike the Merryman farm, many of those properties are not farmed by their owners. "There's no point in preserving the farm if you don't preserve the farmer," says Mr. Merryman, 46.

Now, as the money available for farm preservation dwindles -- down from $30 million in 1990 to about $8 million when awards are made today -- farmers and state officials fear that the program is failing to save Maryland's best agricultural land. And they are taking a hard look at the program.

"Are we really getting what we want?" asks Paul W. Scheidt, director of the Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Foundation. "It's time to change."

At issue is Maryland's procedure for selecting farms for the program as funds dwindle. The financial squeeze now limits the state to protecting about 60 farms a year, compared with 130 farms in 1990.

The financial squeeze has provoked some fundamental questions about which farms to save, the farms most threatened by development or the most valuable agricultural land? Is it as important to save land owned by a Baltimore County gentleman farmer who has a few horses grazing in a pasture as it is to save the land of fourth-generation produce farmer on the Eastern Shore?

The program was created to preserve farm land and woodland, to provide agricultural products and curb the spread of urban blight.

120,000 acres enrolled

In the past 15 years, the state has enrolled more than 120,000 acres in the program, which pays farmers to forgo their development rights.

But while every farm in the program must meet size and soil quality standards and be actively farmed, officials are concerned that Maryland's best farms have been excluded and wealthy landowners have been given an edge.

The key, they say, is the formula used for selecting farms, one based on the difference between fair market value and agricultural value -- the so-called "development value."

Consider two farms, one in Baltimore County's Greenspring Valley, an area feeling intense development pressure, the other in a remote part of the Eastern Shore.

The fair market value of the first farm could be as much as $10,000 an acre, while the agricultural value is only $1,000 an acre. On the second farm, the market value is $1,700 an acre and the agricultural value $1,200 an acre.

Maryland ranks farms based upon how much a land owner is willing to discount the price of development rights.

On the Baltimore County farm -- where development rights were valued at $9,000 an acre -- the land owner was willing to discount the land by 50 percent, or $4,500.

That would give the farm an edge over the Eastern Shore property, and a better chance of obtaining state funds -- even though its land is less valuable for farming. The state would pay the farmer the discounted price, $4,500 per acre.

Stockbroker vs. farmer

Some also would like the state to put a priority on protecting land that is farmed by its owners.

Now, the state looks only at the quality of the land and its price, making no distinction between whether the property is owned by a stockbroker or full-time farmer.

The reason is that while land is constant, ownership may change, Mr. Scheidt says. And, he notes, farmers can benefit even when non-farmers own the land.

For example, the state paid the Greenspring Valley Hounds hunt club nearly $700,000 for the development rights on 160 acres in the Worthington Valley. Although the club received the money, the land is actually farmed by a tenant who grows grain.

Some counties have their own programs to augment the state program. Harford and Howard counties, for example, started preservation programs financed by transfer taxes.

Baltimore and Carroll counties supplement the state program with their own funds.

Extra points for farmers

Baltimore County is one of the few jurisdictions that gives extra points to landowners who farm their own parcels.

Carroll County tries to save the most vulnerable farms by setting aside a pool of money to buy the development rights of newly sold farms.

But the localities are having their own trouble raising money.

Carroll County always paid for its program through general funds, but now faces a budget crunch and possible tax increases.

Howard County's program has expired because it has run out of money to buy more development rights; it now will rely on the private sector to purchase farm easements through a new program.

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