Keeping farming alive

Preservation: Five Howard landowners have offered to keep their properties out of the hands of developers by selling development rights to the county - if the price is right.

October 24, 2001|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

In a county where conservation dreams are often dashed by the economic realities of land costs bid high by developers, Howard County's agriculture preservation board has hopes, after a long drought, of attracting five farms into its conservation program.

It would be a welcome success for county officials, who have had $15 million to offer since last year but until recently had only one taker.

The five property owners with a combined 354 acres recently applied for the program, which buys the development rights from the owner to keep the land permanently available for farming. The county's Agricultural Land Preservation Board will recommend tomorrow night whether the County Council should accept the parcels and how much money to offer for each one.

The property owners may pull out if they decide the deal is not tempting enough, a definite possibility in a place where land values are skyrocketing. But county officials are pleased that they got the applications at all.

Only one family offered its land last year, the first time since 1997 that the county had money to preserve farms. That family is deciding how many acres to preserve - it reportedly intends to preserve at least 400 - and has not settled with the county.

With the newly offered tracts in West Friendship, Woodbine and Cooksville, there is proof that the county has been trying to preserve more farms, said Jeff Everett, who took over the land-preservation program eight months ago.

"We didn't atrophy," he said.

More than half of Howard County's 23,000 preserved acres were brought in through its purchase program. The county pays up to $7,200 an acre, the largest amounts going to the owners of relatively large tracts of land with top-notch soil and good locations.

Everett is recommending that the county offer $3,300 to $6,800 an acre for the five properties. Altogether, the bill would come to a little more than $2 million.

Jason A. Parker, one of three West Friendship residents who applied for the preservation program, said he talked to the county last year but was discouraged to hear that properties smaller than 100 acres weren't eligible for nearly as much money per acre. Then the rules changed in his favor.

"I said, `Heck, I'll apply and see what happens,'" said Parker, who grows crops and raises beef cattle on his 66 acres across from the Howard County Fairgrounds. "Plus, it's a good idea, too. The sprawl's bad enough."

He said his land was farmed even before his parents bought it 30 years ago. He likes the idea of ensuring that it always will be farmed.

The others who applied are H. Thomas Grimes, who owns 61 acres across the road from Parker; Mark and Katherine Wah, who own about 27 acres next door, on Buttercup Court; David and Barbara Costello, who own 73 1/2 acres on Route 97 in Cooksville; and the Talley family, which owns about 127 acres off Daisy Road in Woodbine.

All of the parcels except those owned by the Wah and Talley families touch land that is already preserved, said Everett. "You want to close in holes," he said. "It's protecting our investment."

Although he acknowledges that the price per acre Howard offers does not match what a developer would pay, Everett said it is competitive when the side benefits are considered. The county makes the payments over 30 years, including interest that is tax-free to the landowner. Landowners' property tax bills from the county are permanently reduced by 75 percent.

Farming can continue

Then there's the other benefit developers can't offer, he noted: People who preserve their land can continue farming it.

"You're having your cake and eating it, too," he said.

Landowners, faced with an all-or-nothing choice, are wary of making the wrong one.

Mark Wah, who runs an assisted-living facility on a parcel next to his 27-acre tract, bought the land with hopes of building another small assisted-living home. He was turned off by "cost-prohibitive" regulations and sublets the land to a farmer, but he said he will consider options other than preservation if the county's offer isn't high enough.

Even the top amount isn't a lot, he said, and the commitment is forever.

"I need the maximum," Wah said. "There's no way I can go for less than that. It's not economic. ... Land is valuable in Howard County."

The county reserves its maximum per-acre payments for large farms. Parker thinks more people would be willing to permanently preserve their property if county officials increased their offers for properties of modest size.

Small parcels not eligible

Parcels smaller than 25 acres are not eligible for the program.

"All these little 15-acre parcels, they make up a lot of ground," Parker said.

Everett said he has pondered whether the county should pay for smaller parcels, even though they're often hobby farms instead of true working farms.

"How small is too small?" he wonders.

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