Owens lauds preservation plan's success

Program lets county buy farmers' land, pay in installments

650 acres to be protected

Purchases over time won't deplete funds, executive says

September 14, 2000|By Laura Cadiz | Laura Cadiz,SUN STAFF

A new Anne Arundel County program that buys the development rights of prime property with installment payments has successfully targeted 650 acres of agricultural and wooded land in the county for preservation, County Executive Janet S. Owens announced yesterday.

Standing in front of the 4-H display at the Anne Arundel County Fairgrounds, Owens detailed the first conservation easements negotiated under the new program.

Earmarked for permanent protection under the program are five properties in Tracy's Landing, Harwood, Davidsonville and Lothian.

During her presentation, Owens choked back tears upon reflecting on her years in 4-H.

"I can't tell you how moved I am," she said. "I feel like I'm a little girl again."

Through the installment purchase agreement program administered by the Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Foundation, the county can make payments on the land owners' development rights over time, allowing the county to preserve more farmland more quickly by decreasing the initial expense.

The county pays up to the maximum easement purchase price, ranging from $150,000 to $650,000 on each property over the next 30 years. The down payments will be made in the next few weeks.

The program encourages farmers to participate by allowing them to defer capital gains and guaranteeing a tax-free income during the payment period. However, Owens said many farmers were reluctant to participate because they had been promised the deal for the past 20 years, and the county never had the money.

But Owens was able to help convince them. She said the county has 12 applications from owners of a total of 1,300 acres of farmland who are waiting to join the program.

Preserving the land "was a major issue for me," she said.

Owens said the idea was met with skepticism from the County Council and business people, who were concerned about the costs. She said the plan was worth pursuing because the preservation of land is her second priority after education.

"When you think about how close we are to Baltimore and Washington, every inch [of land] is so important," she said.

The newly acquired properties bring the total agricultural land preserved during Owens' less than two-year tenure to 1,700 acres, compared with 5,700 acres during the 20 years before she took office.

"The beauty of this county, I hope we can keep for the next 50 years for our grandchildren," she said.

Also at yesterday's ceremonies, Carol Council, administrative specialist with the foundation, said Maryland is preserving more farmland than any other state. She said preserving agriculture protects a way of life and an industry by maintaining water quality and land for agriculture production.

The installment purchase agreement program has been successful in other counties, Council said, adding that she is confident the Anne Arundel program will excel.

Martin Zehner Jr., chairman of the Anne Arundel County Farmer's Market Board, called the plan an "excellent tool" because of the deferred payments. He said the program benefits all citizens in the county because it protects open spaces.

"In Anne Arundel County, agriculture and development can co-exist and will co-exist," he said. "And I continue to look forward to a very bright future."

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