Farmland vs. parkland raises thorny question


August 08, 1999|By Mike Burns

THE STATE'S acquisition of 58,000 acres of timberland and wetlands on the Eastern Shore last week illustrated that many places threatened by development are worth preserving.

It's not just about preserving farmland, paying farmers to keep farming, which seems to be the dominant concern of Carroll County. Putting money into acquiring natural areas, open space and parklands must also be a primary goal.

But protection of farm property in this active farming county remains a thorny issue. Some want to see the land kept in farming as an open space amenity; others oppose taxpayer spending for land that remains in private ownership.

Caught in the middle are the farmland owners who no longer want to farm their fields and can't find a buyer to take over the agricultural operations. They are crunched by subdivision and zoning laws in converting the property to other uses. And, as elsewhere in the United States, there are fewer farmers each year, so demand is not great for the real estate purely for traditional farming.

The fate of two Carroll farms in the news this summer underlines this problem.

Both involved land owners of retirement age who wanted to sell their farms, but other farmers showed no real interest in buying the land.

In one case, the owners of the Mercer farm in Woodbine sold their 364-acre spread to the state for inclusion in the Patapsco Valley State Park complex.

Harold and Esther Mercer had tried for five years, since they retired from farming, to sell their land near the Howard County line. There were no offers that would pledge to continue farming.

`Anchor around your neck'

"People here just don't understand farming," Mr. Mercer told The Sun. "They just want to look at plowed fields. But what is a farmer to do with his land when nobody wants it? It becomes an anchor around your neck."

The answer for the Mercers was the desire of the state to preserve the acreage as parkland. The farm embraces a mile of waterfront along the Patapsco River, and it's close to the Hugg Thomas Wildlife Management Area in the Patapsco Valley park.

The $933,000 that the owners received was as result of circumstances and demand outside of farming. The price amounts to about $2,500 an acre -- not a lot more than is paid for easements under the state's farmland preservation program, in which the owner keeps title to the land.

In this case, the sale of the farm resulted in public environmental benefit. The only previous viable offer for the property was from a Baltimore radio station that wanted to put up six transmission towers there. A court decision blocked that use last year, and the state finally negotiated the purchase of the land.

Then there's the case of the other Woodbine farm, owned by the three Rash brothers who also want to retire from the business with a nest egg. They rejected a state offer for a farmland preservation easement (to keep it in agriculture) as too low. They've since tried to rezone the 400-acre property for nonfarm use.

Their latest proposal is to rezone 145 acres of the property for development as a golf course and 50 homes. The Carroll County commissioners have heard the arguments and will soon decide whether to approve or deny.

The legal argument is whether the county made a mistake in zoning the Rash land, or whether there was a significant change in the character of the area.

The encroachment of housing around the farm, allowed by zoning decisions over the years, has transformed the face of the community, the owners insist. Clashes of traditional farmer needs with demands of nonfarmer residents are increasing; use of public roads by big, slow farm machinery is an example of such frictions.

When the county rezoned nearby property in 1978 for residential subdivision, it should have extended that rezoning to the Rash farm, the brothers maintain. Now the former dairy farm is butting up against developments.

The commissioners' rezoning decision may be a crucial one for the future of Carroll County. If the Rash farm is rezoned because of the enormous influx of homes in that South Carroll area, then many more owners of farms could make the same argument.

And that would play havoc with the county's declared goal of preserving farmland, some 100,000 acres by the year 2015, with easements. Easements typically don't come close to development value of farms in the booming South Carroll region.

The idea of a golf course as a privately held green space is similar to the amenity of a working farm. It's probably even more desirable for the community. But the 50 upscale homes would add further pressure on already strained public facilities in the southern part of the county.

Working farms remain at risk because more efficient agriculture and transportation wrest greater output from less land and fewer farmers. The demand for traditional farms for farming is down. And that is an economic factor with which Carroll County increasingly must come to grips.

Mike Burns is The Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

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