Carroll farmland preservation program sparks renewed property owner interest State will pay to keep acreage from developers

May 24, 1998|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,SUN STAFF

The seeds Carroll officials planted three years ago to revitalize the county's then-barren farmland preservation program are beginning to bear fruit.

The number of rural landowners willing to put their property into agricultural land preservation districts had dropped from 50 a year to zero earlier this decade.

But last year -- for the first time since 1991 -- the number of people willing to enter the program became more than a trickle. Seventeen property owners put 2,000 acres into preservation districts last year, and another 20 are putting 2,200 acres into districts this year.

All are hoping the state will pay them to keep their acres out of development. A payoff -- about 60 percent of what developers would offer -- is not guaranteed. And the wait can be interminable.

New Windsor farmer Rauland H. Roop put 170 acres into a preservation district several years ago but didn't receive an offer from the state until this spring.

"I put one [parcel] in and kept one out because I was not sure it was the right thing," he said. "I figured I'd be half right and half wrong."

For awhile, it appeared that creation of a district was the part that was half wrong. Right after he entered the program, "the governor ran off with the money" to fund it, Roop said.

The year was 1991. The state was in a financial crisis. To balance the budget, then- Gov. William Donald Schaefer recommended the state take $17 million out of the program. The General Assembly agreed, essentially shutting down the program for two years.

Rural land owners still resent it.

"We had just about gotten ourselves into the program in 1988 or '89 when Schaefer took out the money and used it for other things," said Wilfred C. Wright of Hampstead. "I'm very upset, quite frankly."

Some farmers are entering the program now "to compensate for losses so they can hold onto the farm," Wright said.

"It's a great idea, but it's a shame farmers have to do that," Wright said.

Wright and his wife, Anne, have applied this year to put their 118-acre property into the program.

The main reason rural land owners are choosing to enter the preservation program again is "the money's available," said Ruth Chamelin, chairwoman of the Carroll County Agricultural Land Preservation Board.

"The past couple of years have been kind of tough for farmers," she said, especially for dairy farmers like herself.

"We're being paid the same [milk prices] now as when we started in 1981," she said.

In the past, dairy farmers could sell a calf for $100 to carry them over briefly in tough times, she said, "but now you may get $25 for a calf, and some go for $10."

As state funding became available again on a limited basis in 1995, state Sen. Larry E. Haines of Westminster sought to double the program's share of real estate transfer tax revenues, its funding mechanism. The increase would have pumped $20 million more a year into the program statewide, he said.

'No shortage of applicants'

But the General Assembly raised the portion of real estate transfer tax assigned to the program only slightly, adding about $2 million a year.

"We could have preserved a lot more land at a lower cost" had the General Assembly accepted his proposal, Haines said. "There is no shortage of applicants right now and we need to fund the program while they are still likely to sell easements. Every citizen will benefit, and long term, it will provide protection for the Chesapeake."

Carroll's goal is to preserve 100,000 acres in the next two decades. A total of 25,679 acres have been permanently preserved and another 18,307 are in preservation districts in anticipation of easement sales.

"We felt that if we were going to meet our goal, we had to get behind self-funding," said Commissioner Donald I. Dell, a farmer who lobbied hard to increase the amount the county spends on farmland preservation.

When Dell and Commissioner W. Benjamin Brown raised Carroll's property tax rate 27 cents two years ago to cover essential services, they agreed to spend $2.5 million of that increase on farmland preservation each year. Altogether, the county is spending $4 million a year on farmland preservation.

Dell worries that it may not be enough.

"We ought to be looking at bond sales" to fund agricultural land preservation, he said.

Owners may quit a preservation district after five years if they have not sold an easement, or sooner under certain financial hardship conditions. Owners of four properties totaling 457 acres ended their district status this year.

Setting a price

When owners apply to have their properties designated as preservation districts, they submit an asking price. Determining the right price is an art. It cannot be more than the blind sum the state is willing to pay for the property, and in most instances, has to be less.

"About 90 percent of the applicants receive less than the state's determination" of the property's value, said William Powel, administrator of the county farmland preservation program.

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