Commissioners consider bonds to keep farmland undeveloped Board decides against real estate transfer tax

December 18, 1998|By Anne Haddad | Anne Haddad,SUN STAFF

It's nothing new for a government to sell bonds to build something. But the county commissioners are exploring that tactic to prevent building -- on farmland, that is.

Commissioners Donald I. Dell and Julia Walsh Gouge are interested in whether the county could sell bonds to boost the amount of money for agricultural preservation. Commissioner Robin Bartlett Frazier said she hasn't heard enough about the issue to form an opinion, but would like to learn more.

"We're selling bonds to repair roads, and paying as we go for agricultural preservation -- that should be flip-flopped," said Dell, a semiretired dairy farmer.

"Agricultural preservation is a long-term issue, and potholes happen every year," Dell said. "It's a lot more acceptable to me to sell bonds for agricultural preservation than for operating expenses."

Also this week, the commissioners decided not to ask the legislative delegation for a county referendum on a real estate transfer tax to pay for agricultural preservation.

Dell said similar requests have been denied, and he preferred to sell bonds because that spreads the cost to all taxpayers.

Gouge and Dell said they would like to pursue bonds, with low interest rates, as long as it doesn't hurt the county's bond rating.

L "My concern is the land could get away from us," Gouge said.

Farmland is preserved through the owner selling to the state an easement that prohibits the owner and any future owners from developing the land for residential or commercial use.

Carroll County has one of the most active agricultural preservation program in Maryland -- it uses all of its state share and qualifies for leftover state money when other counties don't use what would be allotted for them.

Preservation goal

Still, Carroll could fall behind its goal of preserving 100,000 acres by 2016 if more money isn't available to buy easements when the farmers are willing to sell, said William Powel, who directs the program for the county.

"I'm not worried about that goal -- you can't make a farmer sell," Dell said. "But make that money available [for] when the farmer is ready."

Much of Carroll's money for agricultural preservation comes from the state. The county also has augmented the state money with its own.

The state has accepted 27,636 acres in Carroll since the preservation program began in 1980. This year, 29 landowners have offered to sell easements to a total of 3,626 acres. The exact properties are kept confidential while sales are pending, but Powel said many of these are south of Westminster and near Hampstead.

This is important land, Powel said. There are more large parcels than in past years and in the path of burgeoning development.

On one hand, that's good for preservation because these farms would be in the most danger of being snapped up for commercial or residential use. But it will also drive up the price of the easements for the county and state. The land will probably be appraised at a higher value than the farms in the northwestern part of the county.

Powel won't know the appraised value of the properties until July, after the state has hired two independent appraisers and had their findings reviewed by other appraisers.

Speeding the process

Some of the land has been accepted into the program as it is changing owners -- a way for an aspiring farmer to compete for a piece of farmland that a developer is eyeing. The county has created its own "Critical Farms Program" for such instances, so the seller and buyer don't have to wait for the yearlong state approval process. Instead, the county provides money to buy the easement, expecting reimbursement by the state.

The county has been budgeting about $4 million a year to buy easements from farmers. The intent is to be reimbursed as much as possible by the state, but the county has adopted a philosophy that it is important to act on the land as it becomes available, even if reimbursement is not certain.

Pub Date: 12/18/98

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