Saving land for farming Preservation: In Cecil County, where up to 700 acres of farmland a year are lost to development, activists want to offer tax breaks to farmers who don't sell out.

August 31, 1998|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

Agriculture is big business in Cecil County and it's changing every day.

Nobody questions that.

The big dispute in this rural, northeastern corner of the state has to do with efforts to safeguard the region's farms.

Michael Dickinson represents the changing face of Cecil's agriculture industry. The 48-year-old native of England and trainer of horses has built a 40-stall thoroughbred training center a few miles southeast of North East.

"It's the only one in the country," Dickinson said of the 200-acre Tapeta Farm that is home to Da Hoss, winner of the $1 million Breeders' Cup race in 1996, and a number of other horses that run at area tracks, including Laurel, Pimlico and Delaware Park.

The training center opened in April -- about the same time Donna McCardell opened her aquaculture farm near Port Deposit.

Again, it's the first in the region, according to a county official.

When the farm is fully operational this fall, McCardell expects to be producing more than 190,000 tilapia annually that will make their way to restaurants as far away as New York.

And then there's Milburn Orchards, near Elkton. During a weekday morning it looks a lot like any other farm store with its offerings of fruits, vegetables, jellies and wood birdhouses.

But come the weekend, the 1,300-car parking lot fills with customers attracted by the hayrides, craft shows, pony rides, antique car shows and not-so-scary Boo Barn that Milburn Orchards puts on to entertain shoppers and their children.

"We might be moving away from traditional agriculture -- the growing of corn and soybeans and raising livestock -- but agriculture is still a very important part of our economy," said William Kilby, a dairy farmer from Port Deposit and president of the Cecil Land Trust.

Agriculture, including the processing and distribution of food products, is a $54.4 million business that accounts for about 60 percent of the county's total industrial production, according of the Cecil Soil Conservation District.

The trust -- a nonprofit volunteer group dedicated to preserving open space -- wants the county to establish a state-certified program to preserve agricultural land. The county has been losing between 660 acres and 700 acres of farmland a year, according to Kilby, and now has about 153,000 acres devoted to agriculture.

A county program would open the door to increased state funding to pay farmers for putting their land in a preservation trust rather than selling to residential developers.

"It's in the best interest of nearly everyone in the county to maintain our farmland," Kilby said.

Last week, the Cecil Land Trust took county leaders on a tour of Tapeta, Milburn Orchards and the aquaculture operation to convince them of just that.

County Commissioner William C. Manlove, who was on the tour, is already a believer. He has proposed giving farmers tax breaks, which would cost the county about $31,000 annually, in exchange for putting their land in a preservation program.

Manlove is hoping that would be enough to convince the Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Foundation of the county's interest in protecting its farmland and lead to the establishment of a county land preservation program certified by the state.

Such a program, he said, would give the county about $500,000 a year in additional state funding for farmland preservation.

Manlove said maintaining a county program is important because it could keep more land from falling into the hands of developers.

He described, for example, a situation where a farmer might want $1,500 an acre to put his land in a preservation plan and the state is willing to pay just $1,200. "The county could make up the difference, and that land wouldn't be lost," he said.

Larry L. Truslow Jr., another of the county's three commissioners, said he supports farmland preservation but objects to the tax break supported by Manlove and the Cecil Land Trust.

"Agriculture already receives a tax break vs. residential property," he said.

Truslow said that residential property is taxed on 40 percent of its value while farms are taxed on 10 percent of their value.

"I recognize the importance of agriculture, but there are other challenges to this county, including education and law enforcement. More tax breaks for farmers would only punish the other residents," he said.

But Manlove argued that the break was justified because farms get just 63 cents of county services for each dollar of property tax paid. For every dollar in residential property taxes collected, he said, the county pays out about $1.17 in services.

Pub Date: 8/31/98

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