Funds for farmland preservation fall $1 million short of state's expectations State will have $7.8 million to buy development rights

April 24, 1996|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,SUN STAFF

The money available to save farmland this year is less than expected, state officials said yesterday, adding new urgency to the quest to reform Maryland's agricultural land preservation program.

The state will have $7.8 million to offer farmers for development rights, about $1 million less than expected, Paul W. Scheidt, executive director of the Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Foundation, told the group's trustees at a meeting in Annapolis.

Much of the shortfall results from lower-than-expected agriculture transfer taxes, which are collected when farms are sold. This year, the state will have $1.7 million from such taxes to spend on farm preservation. Most of the rest of the program's money comes from the transfer tax imposed on all property sales.

The board voted to use half of the money to make offers to 46 farmers for their development rights this spring. The other half will be used to make a second round of offers this year.

First-round offers in the Baltimore area included two farms in Anne Arundel County, four in Baltimore County, six in Carroll County and six in Harford County. Some of those offers were "partial," less than the amount landowners had requested.

The amount of state money available for farm preservation has dwindled since its peak of $30 million in 1990. As funding has decreased, pressure has risen to ensure that the state uses its money to save the best farms.

A committee is studying ways to change the state's method for buying development rights. The state now determines the price of those rights by subtracting the land's estimated agriculture value from its market value. Farms then are ranked according to the amount a landowner is willing to discount development rights.

That system favors farms most pressed by development, but it doesn't necessarily ensure that the most productive farms are saved.

Some fault the state program because it considers only the size and quality of the land, and not whether it is owned by a farmer. Baltimore County is one of the few localities that gives extra points to farmer-owned land when nominating parcels for preservation.

Wayne McGinnis, a Baltimore County farmer who heads the committee reviewing the state program, said 20 people attended a recent meeting and presented 16 ideas for changing the program. "We'll be working on this throughout the summer," he said.

One option is to calculate agriculture values based on the average rents that properties would bring. In most cases, that method would lower agricultural values, increasing the amount farmers would receive for their development rights, Mr. Scheidt said.

The committee also will consider calculating the price of development rights based on a flat percentage of the fair market value.

Pub Date: 4/24/96

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