Rockburn Run neighbors say they miss farms


July 05, 1999|By Sally Voris | Sally Voris,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

THE IMMEDIATE neighbors are not the only local residents dismayed as fields and woodlands are transformed into housing developments.

Last week's column recounted the anguish of people on each side of one new project near Rockburn Elementary School, Rockburn Run -- Polly and Joe Thornton, and Mary and Earl Strain.

The column prompted a call from Patrick O'Brien, who with deep emotion told of growing up in the area on his family's land -- and how he was glad he was not there to see the house where he had grown up come down.

He had been raised on a small farm on Montgomery Road -- the land being cleared for the development of 15 homes on a cul-de-sac close to Rockburn Elementary School.

O'Brien said the land was very valuable -- so much so, that he and his siblings couldn't afford to keep it.

His father bought a farm on Montgomery Road in 1947, splitting the land into several parcels. He sold some and built a house on the almost 9 acres that he kept.

Lewis and Katherine O'Brien raised their five children there. Patrick was the youngest, and fondly remembers playing in the pond at the back of the property.

Lewis died in 1969, Katherine in 1987. She wanted to treat her children equally, so she gave each a one-fifth share in her estate.

But the value of the land had increased, and "no one of us five could afford to buy the other out," Patrick said.

So, they sold the property to a developer, and divided the proceeds.

Patrick bought a house on Montgomery Road, less than a mile away. Another sibling used the money to educate two daughters.

He said he is "not really happy with the way the county forces developers to divide the land, take out the trees and put in berms."

But keeping the land was not an option for Patrick O'Brien.

Conservation easements

For some, the problems posed by land value include a hefty federal estate tax liability. Nick Williams, coordinator of local land trust assistance for the Maryland Environmental Trust, says it is possible to minimize inheritance taxes and preserve the land through conservation easements.

Williams, whose state agency helps to set up and oversee conservation easements, says people often are not aware of the potential tax burden their heirs may face. Some have difficulty facing their own death.

In areas like Elkridge and Ellicott City, where land has been appraised at $100,000 an acre, a small farm may be worth $1 million to a developer. The IRS uses the land's "highest and best use" -- the most lucrative use -- as the standard for determining its value.

Heirs are required to pay estate taxes within nine months of the landowner's death. Williams says heirs pay no federal estate taxes on individual estates valued at less than $650,000, but they can expect to pay at least $125,000 if the land is valued at $1 million.

When the value of the land is the bulk of the estate, Williams says, conservation easements may eliminate estate taxes altogether.

An easement can provide financial incentives for those who want to protect farmland, forests and wildlife habitat. Among them are property tax credits, lower assessment rates, charitable deductions, and an exclusion of some of the value of the land from the inheritance tax.

Heirs may be able to gain the tax advantages by placing an easement on the land within nine months of the landowner's death.

Columbia attorney Michael Davis says conservation easements are appropriate for landowners who want to keep the property intact and have "charitable intent." Since the easement reduces the future value of the land for the heirs, Davis says it is important for families to plan carefully.

Davis is the estate attorney for Bill Servary, president of the Rockburn Land Trust. Servary and his wife, Rosalie, were among the first in Elkridge to place a conservation easement on their land.

Servary had moved to a 23-acre farm on Montgomery Road in 1963 with his first wife, Virginia, and their two young children, Sally, 8, and Billy, 5 -- now 43 and 40. He says he wanted to raise his children on a "real-life farm."

He had originally planned to sell some of his land to pay for his children's education. In the 1970s, Sam Pistorio, a neighbor, wanted to develop the land behind the Servary farm for houses on quarter-acre lots.

Servary refused to sell his land to provide access for the development. Eventually, Pistorio donated his land to Patapsco Valley State Park.

Later, Servary says, he was offered "anything above seven figures" for his land, provided he could get zoning for intense residential development.

"I wouldn't do that to my neighbors," he said.

About 10 years ago, Servary was approached by three neighbors who spoke of creating an "emerald isle" around Belmont, an estate owned by the American Chemical Society at the end of Belmont Woods Road.

He and his neighbors pooled their acreage to make a parcel of nearly 100 acres, which was accepted by the Maryland Environmental Trust, which checks the property once a year to be sure it has stayed undeveloped.

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