Keeping Open Space money parked Farmland preservation: Shifting money from parklands to ag easements is unwise.

February 24, 1997

FARMLAND PRESERVATION is a cause with strong support in Maryland, where a number of counties rank among the most successful in the nation in that area.

The state program, which has protected 117,000 agricultural acres from development, expects to spend $8 million this year on buying farm easements. Yet Maryland is able to purchase only one-quarter of the farms offered for easements each year.

Legislation by Sen. Larry E. Haines, a Carroll County Republican, aims to accelerate farmland preservation by shifting earmarked tax money for parks to the state's Agricultural Land Preservation Foundation. He wants the farmland fund's share of the state real estate transfer tax to rise to 23 percent, from the current 14.5 percent. Program Open Space's 83 percent share would decrease to 75 percent.

While an urgency exists to protect farmland as a green space amenity, that goal should not draw funds from parks and recreation projects. Both are desirable aims.

Farms in the easement program preserve open space and a rural way of life, but they remain privately owned and operated as agricultural businesses. They are not museums, or fields for public hikes and picnics. Easements keep them from development, a visual amenity, but do not open them to public use.

Parks are purchased outright as public lands for public activity. That's one reason why the split in general real estate transfer taxes is largely in favor of Program Open Space. The growing, vocal demand for more parks and open space in populated areas makes it unlikely that there will be much legislative support for Mr. Haines' proposal.

The senator was able to increase the farmland allocation of these taxes two years ago, rising by 1.5 percentage points from 13 percent. Perhaps another 1 percent might be shifted to agricultural easements, but it would not make a major difference in the farmland program.

Another major hurdle is Gov. Parris N. Glendening's ambitious "Rural Legacy" proposal that tries to combine greenbelt purchases and farm easements, and shifts money from Program Open Space to protect 90,000 acres over five years. Counties might better bolster their locally financed farmland programs, instead of looking for more money from the parks fund.

Pub Date: 2/24/97

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