Preservation needs a few good farmers


July 09, 2000|By NORRIS WEST

COUNTY Executive Janet S. Owens is trying valiantly to preserve the area's agricultural heritage. She has pumped $6 million into the county's agricultural preservation in her first two budgets and has sought -- and gained -- millions more in state Rural Legacy funds.

She deserves credit for trying to save farmland from development pressures pushing southward and eastward.

But a county Ethics Commission ruling is posing a glitch she doesn't need. The commission ruled last month that farmers cannot serve on the county's volunteer agricultural preservation advisory board while participating in the farmland preservation program.

If the law prohibits program participants from serving on the board, as the commission says, the County Council should change it.

The ethics commission guards against conflicts of interest by government officials and government board members whose decisions could benefit them personally. It is an essential task in Anne Arundel County, where public officials can't seem to separate their government duties from their private lives. But a special exception is warranted here. Farmers who would participate in the program are most qualified to sell the concept to their peers.

Saving farmland is a key part of Anne Arundel County's 1997 General Development Plan, and it makes good sense to preserve agriculture in the growing county.

The county now has about 485,000 residents and will cross the 500,000 threshold in five years, according to the Maryland Office of Planning. The state office projects the county's population will reach 537,000 in 2020. Although the county's master plan directs most of the growth in targeted areas, such as northern and western Anne Arundel, development is reaching South County and chewing away at farmland.

Anne Arundel still has a lot of agricultural land worth preserving. In places such as Lothian and Bayard in the county's south, the cornstalks are high, fed by generous doses of rainfall this spring and summer. Tobacco plants are full and healthy (excuse the paradox).

On a warm, sunny summer afternoon, the stench of manure and the picturesque vistas along Routes 408 and 422 give the sense that agriculture lives and thrives.

Ms. Owens, a South County native, realizes that southern Anne Arundel is changing, but she desperately wants to preserve as much farmland as farmers and her budget will allow.

The county started its agricultural preservation program in 1990, supplementing a state program. Under this effort, the county buys development rights from farmers, requiring them to keep the land agricultural in perpetuity. The agreements remain intact even when participating farmers sell the property.

Other counties have protected considerable amounts of farmland through similar programs. Carroll County is a national leader. Since the 1970s, Carroll has preserved about 30,000 acres of farmland by buying permanent easements, and it has placed another 48,000 acres in preservation districts. Though its population is one-third Anne Arundel's and its tax base considerably smaller, Carroll regularly allocates millions for preservation.

Howard County has done well, too, saving 22,000 green acres.

Agricultural preservation was a sleeping dog in Anne Arundel County until Ms. Owens juiced it up with $3 million in her first budget and another $3 million for the fiscal year that began July 1. The county has preserved a mere 6,000 acres over the past two decades and is just now trying to substantially boost those numbers.

Now that Anne Arundel finally is supporting the program financially, officials must market the initiative to prospective participants.

Farmers can make the best pitch.

In Howard County, the seven-member agricultural preservation advisory board must, by law, include three members who earn at least 50 percent of their income from farming.

These members care about agricultural heritage and bring informed views to the panel.

"We wouldn't allow someone to vote on their own properties, but farmers bring a lot of insight," said Joseph Rutter, Howard County's planning and zoning director.

He added: "Who's going to be a better ambassador for an agricultural preservation program than a farmer?"

Mr. Rutter pointed out that the Howard County Council must approve recommendations by the agricultural preservation board, which is also true in Anne Arundel County.

Ms. Owens' staff and the County Council can ensure that conflicts of interest don't arise. They should monitor decisions to make sure members properly disclose their relationships to properties involved and guard against preferential treatment.

The county doesn't need to shut out these farmers. If it does, the county's first real efforts at saving farmland could quickly erode.

Norris P. West writes editorials on Anne Arundel County for The Sun.

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