Officials seek tax to save farms Commissioners tell delegation it's needed for 100,000-acre goal

November 05, 1997|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,SUN STAFF

The County Commissioners told the General Assembly delegation yesterday that Carroll must levy a tax on real estate transfers if the county is to achieve its long-held goal of preserving 100,000 acres of farmland.

It is old message, but one the commissioners keep repackaging in an attempt to win support from the six lawmakers. The commissioners cannot levy the tax without state authority.

After being rebuffed last year, the commissioners have altered their proposal slightly, saying that if given permission to impose the tax, they would not do so unless voters approved it first.

The commissioners changed their approach this year and lobbied delegation members individually before making a formal plea before the group yesterday.

Successive presentations were wrapped in new arguments.

The pitch shared last week with state Sen. Larry E. Haines of Westminster, the delegation chairman, was one of hardship.

Increasing numbers of farmers want to put their farms into the state's preservation program, but money is so scarce that many will be turned away, Haines was told.

The arguments shared with the delegation yesterday were based on arithmetic -- the preservation program won't work given current numbers -- and public demand for the tax.

Public interest was demonstrated early this year when a diverse group of citizen volunteers recommended the tax, said county Planning Director Philip J. Rovang.

The group was helping county officials revise the master plan to guide the county's growth.

"The work team came up with this on their own," Rovang said. "It's a significant thing."

Further, a well-known government consultant also recommended the tax "on his own," and the county planning commission recommended it "without provocation," Rovang said.

Rovang told the delegation that a 1 percent tax on property tax transfers would raise about $4 million a year.

Del. Ellen Willis of Westminster, a member of one of the groups working on the master plan revision, supports the transfer tax proposal.

"This is a fascinating thing to put before our citizens," she said yesterday. "The way to go with something like this is to give the citizens the opportunity to vote on it to put your money where your mouth is" and determine at the polls whether keeping farms out of development is indeed the county's No. 1 priority.

Spending $4 million a year

County Commissioner W. Benjamin Brown said the county is spending about $4 million -- $2.9 in county money and $1.2 million in state funds annually -- to keep farms out of development.

But without a tax of up to 1 percent on real estate transfers, it is a losing battle, Brown said.

Although the $4 million enables the county to preserve about 2,000 agricultural acres each year, the county loses another 1,800 rural acres each year to development.

About 157,000 acres are being farmed in Carroll, and about 27,000 of that have been preserved, Brown said.

At the current rate, the county would preserve 87,000 acres in 30 years, but the remainder of the agricultural land would be gone by then, Brown said.

County Budget Director Steven D. Powell put a punch line on Brown's numbers: "At the current rate of purchase, the land will be gone before we can get it," he said.

Del. Donald B. Elliott of Union Bridge said he wanted assurances that a transfer tax would be used only for farmland preservation. He wants language in the bill that would make the tax "null and void" if used for any purpose other than land preservation -- "except in the case of a fiscal emergency."

Haines, who owns a Westminster real estate company, said county officials need to give the delegation information showing how much the county has spent on farmland preservation in the past five years.

"We have to look at this very carefully," Haines said. "Anytime you tax 10 percent of the people, the other 90 percent vote to approve it."

A transfer tax proposal "would have to be tightly drawn to assure that [the tax] is used for farmland preservation," he said.

Haines suggested that the county look first to raising the fee for recording buildable lots from $6 per $1,000 to $10 per $1,000.

'An A for effort'

State Sen. Timothy R. Ferguson of New Windsor said he did not know how he would vote on the proposal, but he wanted to give the commissioners "an A for effort."

"Anybody who sticks their neck out for the farmers gets an 'A' in my book," he said. "It's a very courageous move despite the heat you may take."

Pub Date: 11/05/97

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