Land preservation program snags don't worry county organizers Coordinator leaves post

funding is in short supply, but officials press on

March 12, 1997|By Dana Hedgpeth | Dana Hedgpeth,SUN STAFF

With its coordinator gone, an estimated 15,000 acres still targeted for preservation and money running short, it would appear that Howard County's agricultural preservation program is in trouble.

But organizers of the program -- considered a model for the state's effort at preserving rural land -- say they are not dismayed.

"We've gotten some good land and we've gotten to a certain point, but it's an ongoing process," said Donna Menitto, who ran the program for eight years and is now working for the Eastern Shore Conservancy. "There's that many fewer homes, schools, roads going on the 17,000 acres we've preserved.

"That's especially helpful even if many think preserving agriculture is a nostalgia cause," said Menitto, who left the position last week. Her job is expected to be filled by May.

The county's farmland preservation program is a model for the governor's proposal to preserve 90,000 acres of farms, open space and forest -- a program that is under fire in the state legislature. The governor's rural legacy program proposes to commit more than $170 million to preserve the land.

Already, Howard County has preserved 17,000 acres in the western end of the county through a $55 million bond authorization aimed at buying development rights on farmland.

Using transfer tax funds

Money to buy the bonds comes from the county real estate transfer tax and the Maryland agricultural transfer tax. Before 1989, that money was used for development rights purchases as it came into the preservation board's coffers.

But that year, the board decided it could buy more land rights if it used the transfer tax funds to buy 30-year bonds -- at 10 cents on the dollar -- and paid landowners annual interest from the bonds and the bulk of their money when the bonds mature in 30 years. That change in financing extended the life of the program.

Until proceeds from transfer taxes -- which generate about $3 million a year -- have built up again, the county can't buy any more bonds, putting additional development rights purchases on hold.

The $1 million remaining in the program's budget covers operational costs.

No purchases since May

No purchases of land for the preservation program have been made since 800 acres were bought in May.

The program pays the landowners who sell development rights tax-free interest twice a year -- usually a few thousand dollars -- and a portion of the principal every two years.

In 30 years -- when the bonds mature -- the farmers receive lump sum payments of the remainder of the principal. They can sell their land at any time, but the county retains the development rights.

Nontraditional farming

During the several years it will take the fund to return to operational levels, organizers plan to promote nontraditional farming -- such as pick-your-own farms -- to maintain interest in agriculture.

"We're focusing on how to continue to work in changing the nature of agriculture from the traditional production of beef and dairy cattle to more nontraditional items. We have to look more at LTC what can we do to save the farmer and not just the farm," said Joseph W. Rutter Jr., the county's planning and zoning director.

"If we could pick up one property every year for the next three to five years, we'd be in good shape," said County Councilman Charles C. Feaga.

"It's the last chance we have to get true open space for a reasonable price.

"Thirty years from now, we'll look back and realize what a deal it is that we preserved land," he said.

"We have to think: 'Do we want to spend money on preservation or do we want to spend money on development?' " said Del. Elizabeth Bobo, who represents Howard County.

"As Howard County's seen, it's wise not to use all our land in development. It's been a good lesson in foresight and prudence," she said.

Pub Date: 3/12/97

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