Funding is sought to save farmland Commissioners want voters to decide if tax should be levied

November 02, 1997|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,SUN STAFF

The worst drought in years has led some Carroll farmers to seek relief by selling easements that would keep their property from being developed.

Twenty-eight farmers have sought to enter the county's agricultural land preservation program, but only 14 may be accepted this year because of limited funds, William Powel, the county's Agricultural Preservation Program administrator, told county officials last week.

Powel joined County Commissioners W. Benjamin Brown and Donald I. Dell in lobbying state Sen. Larry E. Haines on Friday for support of a bill designed to garner more money for the preservation program. Republican Haines is chairman of the county's General Assembly delegation.

The commissioners already are spending $4 million a year on farmland preservation, but say they would have to spend nearly twice that much to achieve the county's goal of preserving 100,000 rural acres by 2020.

The best way to raise the needed money, the commissioners say, is to levy a tax of up to 1 percent on all real estate transfers -- a proposal the Annapolis delegation rejected during last year's legislative session. A tax of 1 percent would raise an estimated $4 million a year for the county's agricultural land preservation program.

This year, the commissioners are taking a different tack. They want to put the issue on the ballot and let voters decide whether the county should impose the tax.

Haines, who owns a Westminster real estate company, questioned that approach Friday, asking whether the commissioners want to make every tax increase subject to a voter referendum.

They do not -- and the only reason they are looking to do it now, said Commissioner W. Benjamin Brown, is because it may be the only way to get a transfer tax bill through the General Assembly.

Brown, Dell and Commissioner Richard T. Yates believe the public would support a transfer tax dedicated to farmland preservation.

They may not get the chance. Only Del. Ellen L. Willis of Westminster has voiced support for the bill. Willis is the sole Democrat in the county General Assembly delegation.

The commissioners moved ahead on another land preservation front last week. They added another 286 acres to the county's preservation program by authorizing the $433,950 purchase of easements that will preserve two small farms -- one in Hampstead, the other in Detour.

Both properties will be acquired through the county's critical farms program. The program allows farm buyers to put a newly purchased farm into the state agricultural preservation program and receive most of the easement money immediately.

Property owners usually have to wait up to five years to get paid up to 100 percent of the assessed value of their farms.

County officials, fearing that buyers would subdivide their land rather than wait five years to receive payment from the state, decided to pay owners 75 percent assessed value immediately in hopes that the state would pay owners 100 percent later.

After receiving state funds, owners reimburse the county and pocket the difference between the 75 percent the county paid and the amount the state will pay.

The county was recently reimbursed for the nine easements purchased in the first year of the critical farms program, making the critical farms program a true "revolving fund," Powel said. During the fiscal year that began July 1, 1992, the county preserved 1,027 acres comprising the nine farms.

In the past year, the program expanded with the purchase of eight more critical farms -- seven through the county program and one bought with a federal grant. Altogether, the eight farms amounted to 1,110 acres.

The Hampstead and Detour properties brought into the critical farms program last week are the first to be received this fiscal year, although two others are being appraised -- the first step toward being accepted into the program, Powel said.

The county paid Kenneth M. and Mary Ellen Barnes $174,900 Friday for an easement on the 147-acre livestock farm they bought in the 7400 block of Sixes Bridge Road in Detour. The county is scheduled to pay $259,050 to Lippy Brothers Inc. for a 139-acre farm the partnership is purchasing in the 400 block of Lees Mill Road in Hampstead.

Under terms of the agreements, neither of the new owners will be allowed to carve lots from their property and build on them.

Pub Date: 11/02/97

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