Carroll County officials eye new strategy for saving farms

Plan would consider the quality of land

January 18, 2000|By Brenda J. Buote | Brenda J. Buote,SUN STAFF

In an attempt to encourage the preservation of Carroll County's best farms,local officials might soon consider adopting a new strategy for protecting farmland.

The initiative, which is expected to be discussed at a meeting today of the county Agricultural Preservation Advisory Board, would allow officials to target land for preservation based in part on the quality of the soil.

Legislation passed by the Maryland General Assembly last year allows counties to decide for themselves how they will preserve farmland. In the past, the state required that counties give preference to farmers who offered the deepest discounts on their land in a competitive bidding process.

The plan being presented to the board by Bill Powel, administrator of Carroll County's preservation program, would rate each farm using a scoring system in an attempt to ensure that the land being preserved is the "best land" available. A similar program is used in Baltimore County.

"In the past, there's been criticism that because of the bidding process, the county didn't always buy the best farm," said Powel. "By adopting a scoring system, we could weigh factors other than cost."

Carroll's agricultural preservation program allows the county to buy development rights from farmers who want to continue working the land but need financial assistance for operational costs. The three-member Board of County Commissioners has set aside more than $4 million for land preservation in fiscal 2000, which ends June 30.

About 90 percent of the preserved land is in northwest Carroll. Only a handful of farms has been protected in the Westminster area and South Carroll -- places that have been targeted for development.

Carroll uses a scoring system in its critical farms program, which lends farmers county dollars to buy land. To be eligible for assistance, the farm must pass a test -- officials measure the quality of the soil, proximity to other preserved farms and development potential.

Since the program started in 1993, 27 farmers have received assistance, Powel said. Of those, 18 have paid the county back using state dollars. The remaining farmers are in the process of applying to the Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Foundation for funding.

Powel said that although he will present the plan, he is wary of applying the same scoring method to the county's agricultural preservation program.

"It's something to consider, but I'm not promoting it," Powel said. "The goal of the new legislation -- to prevent sprawl preservation -- is a noble one, but I don't have faith in any scoring system. It's difficult to develop a scoring system that truly picks what is considered the `best farm' because everybody has a different opinion of what is `best.'

"You could have a farm that just meets the soil criteria, that is very well-managed, has a dairy operation, employs three people full time and has great economic benefits for the county, but that farm may score low," Powel said.

Powel said that using a scoring system could mean the county would have to pay more for farmland preservation because the emphasis on the bidding process would be greatly reduced.

The county Agricultural Preservation Advisory Board will meet at noon today at Maria's restaurant on Route 140 in Westminster.

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