State's farming program studied

Midwestern group sees Maryland as leader in land conservation

Mid-Atlantic tour

April 02, 2000|By Anne Haddad | Anne Haddad,SUN STAFF

Looking to Maryland as the national leader in farmland preservation, four bus loads of Midwesterners visited Montgomery, Carroll and Harford counties Friday as part of a mid-Atlantic tour to gather advice and inspiration for their efforts at home.

"You can see the impact of the program and what a difference it can make over 15 years," said David Skjaerlund, a Michigan farmer who started the tours two years ago. Michigan, Indiana and Ohio have each lost between 1 million and 1.5 million acres of farmland over the past 15 years.

"You guys have the same development pressure or more than we have, but you're able to accomplish your residential growth without sacrificing your agricultural communities and industry," Skjaerlund said.

With Pennsylvania a close second, Maryland has more acres of land preserved for farming than any other state, retired state senator and farmer James Clark of Howard County told the 180 farmers, legislators, developers and other visitors. They heard him and other officials during a lunch stop at the Westminster Fire Hall, before touring Jason Myers' dairy farm near New Windsor.

Clark was one of the founders of the state's program in 1974, when a real estate transfer tax was started to pay for easements on eligible farms to keep them from being developed. As of June, the state had bought easements on 166,529 acres of farmland.

Once, a challenger ran against Clark, attacking the program.

"When it was all said and done, to show you how popular agricultural preservation is, he didn't even carry his own precinct," said Clark.

Maryland preservation advocates are hoping to keep the state's program from losing steam.

Since Clark and other champions of the original program have retired, no one has stepped into that same leadership role, said Donna Mennitto, field projects specialist for the American Farmland Trust (AFT), based in Washington.

"It hasn't grown, it hasn't innovated. Other programs have come along that compete for the dollars," Mennitto said. "It's lost its champions. There is no substitute for leadership on this issue. Maryland is where it began because there were individuals here who made a commitment."

Mennitto, a former planner in Howard and Carroll counties, said the AFT is planning a review of the Maryland program. As other states have adapted the program to their needs, she said, it may be time for Maryland to look at what other states are doing.

But Friday, Marylanders were the teachers and the Midwestern visitors were the avid listeners.

One farmer asked what government officials say when nonfarmers complain that farmers are getting tax breaks and government money.

Melvin Baile Jr., a Carroll grain farmer and member of the county's planning and zoning commission, was quick to provide an answer: For every dollar paid in taxes by a farm, the county spends 45 cents in public services. Industry uses 55 cents for every dollar in revenue it brings in. And residential development provides a net loss, using $1.27 for every dollar.

Phillip Anderson of the Indiana Beef Cattle Association said government leadership is one of the key things his state needs to develop.

"The difference I see [in Maryland] is, they do planning, and we do planning. But they stick to the plan," Anderson said of efforts to preserve agriculture.

"Instead, we get variances," Anderson said of his home state's approach to planning. Government leaders aren't sticking to the agricultural zoning, he said.

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