Carroll looks to regain momentum toward its land-preservation goal

County falters on way to 100,000-acre mark

September 02, 2001|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

For almost two decades, Carroll County reigned as the nation's king of farmland preservation.

In 1979, long before Smart Growth was a popular concept, the county set a goal of preserving 100,000 acres of farmland over a 40-year period. It got off to a roaring start, seizing state money that few other counties were even ready to apply for.

In the past five years, however, counties across Maryland and the nation have caught preservation fever. Carroll fell to second in acres preserved, then to fourth and now fifth. When Gov. Parris N. Glendening doled out funds for his Rural Legacy program this year, the one-time preservation champion received less money than Montgomery, St. Mary's and Baltimore counties. A little more than halfway into its 40-year plan, Carroll has preserved about 35,000 acres.

That's not good enough, said Bill Powel, longtime director of Carroll's preservation program. Because of increasing competition for state funds and the increasing complexity of preservation programs, Powel said he needs more help. That's why he and retiring Planning Director Steve Horn asked the county commissioners three weeks ago to give the preservation department two more staffers.

Powel would also like the county to create its own preservation program independent of the state so it won't be restricted by what he called the state's antiquated funding mechanisms.

"We already know how to do a better job," he said. "We simply don't have the time to deliver the service we should in a voluntary program."

With the extra help, Powel said, Carroll might have squeezed more than $1 million out of Rural Legacy this year. The three-year-old program - separate from the original agricultural land preservation program - gives counties money to establish concentrations of preserved farmland and thus reduce the likelihood of development in those areas.

Heading into this year, Carroll had secured $3.75 million to preserve farms in the Little Pipe Creek area of western Carroll, but in part because of a backlog in paperwork, the county had used only $1.8 million of the total. Glendening based his 2001 allocations largely on what percentage of past Rural Legacy funds counties had spent. Anne Arundel, for example, had barely used any of its 2000 allotment, and the county received nothing this year.

With an extra set of hands, Powel said, Carroll could have processed five more applications and thus used almost all of its $3.75 million before the governor made his decisions for this year. That's only one example of how he and his lone administrative assistant can get overwhelmed by preservation demands, he said.

The county commissioners' initial reaction to Powel's request for help was positive.

"Bill needs help," said Commissioner Donald I. Dell. "His office has definitely gotten busier and we have doubled our money for preservation. We have to help him out as much as we can."

Added Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge: "The recommendations make sense to me. If we are going to preserve land under so many different programs, we will need help. Bill Powel does an excellent job, but he needs someone working directly with him for the next few years. We need to concentrate our efforts, and Bill certainly can't do it all. He has to have the staff."

If the county is to intensify its preservation efforts, it also needs to prepare for Powel's impending retirement, Horn said. A former Howard County farmer and a nationally recognized expert on preservation, Powel has already worked past one supposed retirement date. He hasn't determined when he'll quit - but it won't be long, he said.

Powel is widely considered the driving force behind Carroll's preservation success.

"He's pretty much the acknowledged master of this," said Dell, a former dairy farmer who preserved his own land at the beginning of the program.

Asked about the changing directions of preservation, Powel casually begins listing intricacies that sound like Sanskrit to the layperson. He said he feels handcuffed by the limitations of the state's farmland preservation program.

For instance, Powel would like to see installment-purchase plans put into effect. Under its farmland preservation program, the state purchases a five-year option on a farm. During the five years, a farmer cannot develop his land, and at the end of the five years, the state has the option to buy a permanent easement on the property.

There are two problems with that arrangement, Powel said. First, farmers don't like having their land tied up for five years without a guarantee of future money. Second, the tax impact of the purchase can be hard on the farmer.

Installment plans would eliminate both problems. In exchange for preserving his land, the farmer would receive a down payment and tax-free annual interest payments on the remaining value of the property for 20 or 30 years. Only at the end, when the state or county pays the balance on the full easement, would the farmer face a large tax obligation.

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