Groups unite on farmland Factions to push state to preserve agricultural property

'Harmony' emphasized

Report urges counties to also use model for zoning, development

June 22, 1998|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,SUN STAFF

In a rare show of solidarity, factions that traditionally differ over how to shape Maryland's landscape are expected to call today for state and local governments to sharpen efforts to save the state's dwindling supply of prime farmland.

The privately funded Chesapeake Farms for the Future Board -- made up of homebuilders, farmers, government officials and environmentalists -- is urging the state to direct its resources toward saving the most valuable and threatened land.

In a 117-page report being issued in Annapolis today, the group is also asking counties to follow a land preservation model that demands strict zoning of agricultural land, clustering houses and acquiring farmers' development rights.

"There's a lot of competition for land in Maryland," said Jill Schwartz, mid-Atlantic field director for the American Farmland Trust. "We've got to start learning to live in harmony."

The trust was among 10 organizations -- including the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the Maryland Department of Agriculture and the Maryland Farm Bureau -- that received funding from the W. K. Kellogg Foundation to create maps of the state's most prized farmland and draw up a program for how to save it.

Although farmers, environmentalists and homebuilders often are at odds, they agree that the state should save its best farmland and allow development on less important properties.

"We believe it is important to have a broad agreement on where high-value farmland exists and viable mechanisms to preserve it," said John E. Kortecamp, executive vice president for the Home Builders Association of Maryland.

"We also believe that all parties must recognize that because of our growth new land, some of it farmland, will have to be developed."

Wayne McGinnis, a Baltimore County beef cattle farmer who heads the Chesapeake Farms for the Future Board, said the group recognized that Maryland must find land to accommodate its growing population.

"There is some common ground, and this is what you work on," he said.

Agriculture is Maryland's top industry with 13,700 farms producing $1.56 billion in sales each year, the board noted. But while Maryland has one of the most aggressive farm preservation efforts in the country and has enrolled more than 286,000 acres in various land protection programs, farmers have not been able to hold the line against growth.

The state continues to lose 3 acres of farmland for every acre it saves. Although the state has recently enacted its Smart Growth initiative to curb sprawl and the Rural Legacy Program to save land, the board says more needs to be done.

In bringing together the disparate interests, board members said farmland should be saved not only to protect the food supply and an important state industry, but to safeguard environmental and cultural attributes as well.

"A very important part of our effort to protect the bay is working with the agriculture community," said Thomas V. Grasso, director of the Maryland Office of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. "From our perspective, a well-managed farm is by far the best alternative to developed land."

The group identified the state's most important land by considering quality of soils; environmental, cultural and historical features; and threat of development.

It found that less than 10 percent of the land identified as having the greatest importance has been preserved.

To emphasize its point, the group prepared sophisticated, multicolored maps using satellite data and other information that have been rarely combined.

The maps show the most serious threat to prime farmland is in western Howard County, central Harford County and much of Carroll County.

Southern Maryland

In Southern Maryland, farms along the Patuxent River in St. Mary's and Calvert counties also are endangered, as are pockets in Wicomico and Worcester counties.

"We're saying you need to protect all the land that is strategic," Schwartz said.

Board members said the maps should complement the state's new Smart Growth Initiative and its Rural Legacy Program by helping officials identify where to target farm preservation efforts.

Although the state's Agriculture Land Preservation Program has tried for years to save the state's most productive farms, peculiarities in the formula for choosing the land has meant some of the best farms have not been selected, said McGinnis. He is also president of Maryland's Agriculture Land Preservation Foundation, which helps choose the farms.

In addition, he said, the state's efforts have lacked a strategy that crosses county jurisdictions.

To save the best land, the board is calling for increased state funding for existing preservation programs. Maryland spends about $15 million a year to save land through its agriculture preservation program, and this year will spend $29 million to protect land through the Rural Legacy Program. The board also wants the state to create a separate program to target "critical farms" in imminent jeopardy.

The board found that at the county level, land preservation efforts varied greatly. It urged each locality to institute a program that would require a comprehensive rather than piecemeal approach.

Agriculture zoning

The board urged counties to impose strict agriculture zoning, cluster housing and adopt programs that pay farmers for their development rights or allow them to transfer those rights to developers. Developers could then use the transferred rights to build more houses on a given property than they otherwise would be allowed to build.

With its report finished, the group will begin a campaign among state and local officials, community groups and farmers to persuade them to heed the recommendations.

"Our work is just beginning," Schwartz said. "We don't want this report to sit on the shelf."

A sampling of the maps can be viewed on the Internet at www.farmland.org.

Pub Date: 6/22/98

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