Grants to help rural areas

Counties seek funds from state program to save open space

$29 million given last year

Baltimore County asking for $16 million to use in four projects

June 02, 1999|By Melody Simmons | Melody Simmons,SUN STAFF

After six weeks of lobbying that had all the fervor of a game show -- and the high stakes, too -- state officials are starting to mark acres of woodlands, meadows and marshes that will be preserved as part of Maryland's open space.

About $25 million in state money is at stake, and counties are hungry for the funds.

Baltimore County officials and private land trusts, for example, are seeking $16 million to preserve land in four areas: part of the coastal ribbon near Back River Neck, the Piney Run watershed, 23,000-acre Long Green Valley and the Gunpowder watershed. Carroll County wants $5 million to preserve land along Little Pipe Creek near the historic towns of Union Bridge and New Windsor.

"They've been working their fingers to the bone on this one," said William Powel, an official with Carroll County's planning office who recently showed a colorful, 20-minute slide show on the county's application.

Now, it's up to an advisory committee to spend the summer ranking the best sites for the state's Rural Legacy program.

The program, in its second year, is part of Gov. Parris N. Glendening's Smart Growth initiative, designed to curb suburban sprawl by linking state money for roads, sewers, schools and other infrastructure to designated growth areas.

The 10-member advisory committee will tour the proposed sites and rank the 25 applications before forwarding recommendations to top state environmental and agricultural officials -- and ultimately to Glendening. He will announce the winners in September.

The program uses state grants to purchase easements and help preserve blocks of land with historic, environmental and agricultural significance.

Carroll last year applied for an $8 million grant but ended up with only $1.5 million.

Powel hopes another Rural Legacy award -- no matter the amount -- will enhance preservation efforts as development pressure continues to mount from nearby Westminster.

Other counties also hope to cash in.

Yesterday, the Baltimore County Council was asked to approve a ranking of the county proposals, giving priority to the Long Green Valley, followed by the Gunpowder, Piney Run, and coastal plans.

"Groups for all four plans have worked together since last year," said George G. Perdikakis, director of the Baltimore County Department of Environmental Protection and Resource Management.

The state is requiring localities with more than one Rural Legacy request to rank their applications as a way to avoid the kind of last-minute changes that troubled last year's awards when Long Green Valley received a high ranking from the state committee -- but was overridden by Baltimore County officials who pressed for funds for the coastal plan.

This year, Perdikakis said he believes all four proposals deserve funding, but he stressed the importance of establishing two new Rural Legacy areas in the county -- adding that Long Green's proposal deserved the top ranking because its supporters have "shown tremendous aggressiveness."

In addition, the county has approved $2.5 million in next year's budget to match any of its state grants for preservation.

Preservation efforts in the coastal area are already in motion after a $1.5 million Rural Legacy award last year aided by $1.6 million in Project Open Space funds and $2 million in local commitments. An easement on a targeted 686-acre parcel near the Chesapeake Bay is currently being negotiated with the Trust for Public Land, a national environmental organization.

Local preservationists also received $3 million in Rural Legacy funds last year to purchase land or development rights along the Piney Run. They seek a $5 million grant this year to continue those efforts, said Jack Dillon, director of the Valleys Planning Council, a nonprofit group that is co-sponsor of the effort.

While the Piney Run Plan -- one of the highest rated in the state last year -- achieved only third place in the county's ranking this year, Dillon said he understood the county's tactics.

Anne Arundel officials are seeking $2.2 million to buy development rights on 550 acres in the southern quadrant, Cecil County hopes to snag a grant to preserve agricultural land in the northeast near the Mason-Dixon Line and Harford County officials have identified a new area to attempt to preserve -- 15,900 acres south of Darlington along the Susquehanna River near Lower Deer Creek.

Two applications have been filed by Howard County officials, seeking a total of $5.9 million to preserve contiguous parcels along the Patuxent River watershed.

The first grants, totaling $29 million, were announced last summer, but delays in tailoring the intricate easements to each property have slowed expenditure of the money. Counties have 18 months to take applications from property owners interested in selling their development rights or land to the program.

"Everything should move much quicker this year," promised H. Grant Dehart, Program Open Space director, who is shepherding the Rural Legacy program.

Sun staff writer Liz Atwood contributed to this article.

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