Money helps farmers keep the land green

Easements: Conservation fees preserve Maryland's scenic views and agricultural economies.

April 25, 2001|By Andrew A. Green | By Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

Facing the prospect of adjusting to new environmental regulations after decades of waking up with the cows and years of disappointing milk and grain prices, Bob and Lydia Korman were looking for a way to retire last fall.

But the Baltimore County dairy farmers faced the same problem many farmers do at retirement time: Land is not the most liquid of assets. The Kormans' 144 acres off Black Rock Road in the northwest part of the county would fetch more than enough on the market to secure them financially, but they had no desire to sell.

So, two years after first hearing of the possibility, the Kormans sold not their land but their rights to develop it. They enrolled in the state's Rural Legacy Program, which gave them a fee per acre in return for a guarantee that it would remain almost entirely open space.

"We can keep our land," Lydia Korman said. "It's been Bob's home all his life, and if a farmer has to sell their farm to retire, that has to be the hardest thing to give up that. So this has helped us, no lying about it."

As states and municipalities across the nation seek ways to stop sprawl and protect open spaces, conservation easement programs like the one the Kormans took advantage of are becoming increasingly popular. When they work properly, the public gets a guarantee that large tracts of land will remain undeveloped, and farmers get cash they often need to settle inheritances, retire or purchase equipment.

Maryland's programs are widely considered the best in the nation - only Pennsylvania has preserved more farm acreage - and by putting large tracts of land off-limits to development, they have contributed significantly to the preservation of natural resources, one of the goals of Gov. Parris N. Glendening's Smart Growth initiatives.

But they have not guaranteed the future viability of agriculture in Maryland, especially in some suburban counties where zoning is more relaxed.

In the past two years, the state's major land preservation program for the first time put more acres into preservation than developers converted to other uses. But that feat was accomplished by increasing the number of easements purchased, not reducing the number of acres converted. Every year, Maryland loses more than 12,000 acres of farmland.

State agriculture officials have long theorized that there's a critical number for agricultural acres in the state, and if Maryland drops below it, the industry will start to break down. If an area does not have enough farms, the theory goes, supply stores, veterinarians and tractor repair shops will go out of business, and the few farmers who remain will find it harder and harder to get by.

Agriculture activists say that if counties complement state and local easement purchase programs with stricter zoning and development restrictions, they can preserve the land and make sure farmers will continue to use it.

"You have to have all the things going in one direction to get there, and some counties have done a good job of it and others need to step up and do their part," said Mary M. Heinricht, mid-Atlantic director of the Farmland Trust.

The Kormans declined to say how much they got for their land, but farmers in their area have generally received about $3,000 an acre. And because Baltimore County has a thriving rental economy for farmland, they had no problem finding someone willing to pay to work their land.

Even so, there's no doubt their farm, set in picturesque rolling hills, could yield far more money if it were developed. It's about 15 minutes from the light rail stop at Hunt Valley and about 30 miles from downtown Baltimore. Black Rock Road is already a thoroughfare for commuters from Carroll County and even Pennsylvania.

"We're thinking in the back of our minds, we'll never see it, but someday they're going to need room for people to live," Lydia Korman said.

One house per 50 acres

The reason the Kormans don't think they'll see subdivisions around them in their lifetimes - and a factor in their decision to sell their easements - is that Baltimore County has very restrictive zoning in its agricultural north. It has for a long time and, as the Kormans and others figure, it will for a long time to come.

Baltimore County allows only one house per 50 acres in its agricultural zones. The Kormans have two houses on their 144 acres (they rent one out), so they couldn't build anything anyway.

That's not the case everywhere in the state, and in places where zoning is less restrictive, farmers face much harder choices.

Looser regulations allow subdivisions to creep into agricultural zones, and that can have a destructive effect on the remaining farmers, said Lori M. Lynch, an assistant professor of agricultural and resource economics at the University of Maryland.

Lynch recently received a grant to study whether there is a minimum number of cultivated acres Maryland needs to keep its agricultural economy going.

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