Farmers stave off suburbia Preservation: Baltimore County farmers seek a share of $29 million in state money to protect agricultural land.

May 30, 1998|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,SUN STAFF

Wayne Armacost's family has farmed the land around Upperco for seven generations, but the Baltimore County dairy farmer worries that the fabric of his agricultural community is starting to unravel.

Farms in his area are being squeezed by townhouse developments to the north and million-dollar estates to the south. Local tractor dealers have closed or have switched to selling lawn mowers for the new homes springing up.

And these days, Armacost must summon a repairman from Hagerstown when his milking equipment breaks or travel to Westminster for tractor parts.

Now he and other area farmers are joining in a bid to preserve their way of life, seeking a share of $29 million the state has set aside to protect rural land as part of Gov. Parris N. Glendening's Smart Growth initiative.

Within a few weeks, they will know whether they have been selected to participate in the state's new Rural Legacy Program, which aims to protect land by buying the development rights from the property owners.

"It's important to have a core of agriculture land," says Armacost, 45, whose 400 cows produce 1.6 million 8-ounce glasses of milk a month. "We think we have a great product, and it's in the center of an area where it needs to be produced."

The farmers, joining forces with the influential Valleys Planning Council, propose saving nearly 20,000 acres in the Piney Run watershed with Rural Legacy money.

Variety of motives

Some plan to use the money for retirement. Others want to ensure an inheritance for their children who do not farm. Some have other motives to enroll in the program.

"It's kind of for moral reasons," says Austin Armacost, a dairy farmer and a distant cousin of Wayne Armacost. "I think people should live in the city if they want to be city dwellers and in the country if they want to be country dwellers."

Many of the Baltimore County farmers are descendants of settlers who came to the rolling, fertile land more than 200 years ago. But today these farmers face enormous pressures.

Traffic pouring out of Carroll County and southern Pennsylvania clogs the roads and makes driving tractors and wagons dangerous.

The farmers' children often choose to work in suburban offices rather than the fields.

And as nearby land is lost to development, feed suppliers and farm equipment dealers go out of business.

Although the county's strict zoning precludes intensive development, the farmers must resist the temptation to sell their land to wealthy executives looking for country estates.

Wayne Armacost, part-owner of Hickory Hill Farm, says he and his younger brother, John, would like money from the Rural Legacy Program to buy out the interest of their older brother, Franklin, who no longer wants to farm.

The Armacosts already have sold the development rights on most of their farm to the state's Agricultural Land Preservation Program, but they still have 25 acres with development rights they could sell if their area is chosen for the Rural Legacy Program.

Austin Armacost, 60, says the program could help him retire from his family's 350-acre dairy farm.

A chance to slow down

"I'd like to kind of slow down some," says the farmer, a willowy man who looks younger than his years. "This would be a nice way to do that without selling the land."

Although his children have no interest in farming, Armacost says he wants the land his father purchased in the 1950s to stay in agriculture after he is gone.

Meanwhile, John Merryman, 49, and his sister, Dr. Ginny Merryman, 44, say the program could help them keep their parents' 150-acre beef and grain farm, which has been in the family for six generations.

L "It's a legacy of the Merryman family," Ginny Merryman says.

If the Merrymans enroll in the Rural Legacy Program, the $100,000 to $200,000 they could expect could be used to set up a corporation in which they could be shareholders. Or it might allow Ginny Merryman to receive an inheritance from the farm while her brother keeps the land.

Yet no one expects the Rural Legacy Program to be a panacea against sprawl and the loss of farmland.

Some farmers are distrustful of the program because it is administered by the Department of Natural Resources rather than the more familiar Department of Agriculture.

Strings attached

For example, Ronald Yahn, an Upperco farmer, says he fears it would put too many strings on farm operations, prohibiting enterprises such as sawmills, dog kennels or his tire repair business.

H. Grant DeHart, who is working on the Rural Legacy Program for the Department of Natural Resources, says the program would put a few more restrictions on the land than the Agricultural Land Preservation Program.

But he said most of the limitations would be negotiated by the property owner and the land trust or local agency administering the program.

Deborah Bowers, director of the Harford Land Trust, which has proposed a large Rural Legacy area straddling Baltimore and Harford counties, says the success of the Rural Legacy Program will depend not only upon the regulations, but also upon how the state distributes the money.

If the money is spread throughout the state, rather than concentrated in a few areas, the effectiveness of the program will be diminished, she says.

VTC Still, she hopes the Rural Legacy will provide another means of preserving land by protecting properties other programs cannot.

In Upperco, that's a hope the farmers have as well.

Pub Date: 5/30/98

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