Carroll's share of land transfer taxes - revenue the state collects from property sales - nearly doubled last year to $654,815, which means more money for the county's farmland preservation efforts.
That news arrives at the end of the county's most successful year of expanding the number of farms and acres in its farmland preservation program, one of the most productive in the country.
"This is best [preservation] year we have ever had," Bill Powel, county preservation director, said in a report to the Carroll commissioners yesterday. "We have 32 new farms and 3,854 more acres. We are up to 37,190 acres now on 309 properties."
Clouding an otherwise successful year is a threat from the state to revoke certification of the county's preservation program for agricultural land unless the county repeals a contentious new zoning law by Jan. 15 - which would leave the county to fund the program on its own.
The new law allows landowners to transfer development rights from their conservation land to their agricultural land, meaning they could develop one residential lot for every 3 acres - instead of one for every 20 acres as permitted under agricultural zoning.
The state contends that the law will spur development and destroy farmland.
The loss of certification would cost the county initially about $400,000 (enough to buy preservation rights on about two farms), Powel said, and could have long-term detrimental effects.
Without state money, the program's future is unclear, he said. He said, however, that the county has devoted millions of dollars to the cause and might be able to sustain an independent preservation effort.
But even if the county is successful on its own, the long-term consequences for the farmland preservation and similar state programs could be severe, Powel said.
The farmland preservation program has long been a source of pride for Carroll. In 1979, before Smart Growth was a popular concept, the county set a goal of preserving 100,000 acres of farmland in 40 years. For many years, Carroll had preserved more acres than any county in the nation.
The state has certified the county's land preservation program again this year, making it eligible for the funds generated by property sales tax.
Timothy D. Hartman, administrator of the county's office of performance auditing, called Carroll's share fairly substantial, noting an increase of more than $300,000 from the previous year. The county is also eligible for preservation funds from the state's Rural Legacy and Green Print programs - other fairly new land preservation programs.
In the fiscal year that ended June 30, the state collected $872,897 in land transfer taxes in Carroll and apportioned 75 percent of that amount to the county. Counties must spend the tax money within three years on preservation efforts.
"Carroll is one of the major counties throughout the country when it comes to land preservation," Hartman said. "Our audit shows the county is in compliance with state regulations and has spent [preservation] money in the proscribed time. Participating farms are abiding by the rules."
Powel has inspected about 10 percent of the farms in the program, many of them for more than 15 years, and found them "very much in compliance" with the regulations of the Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Foundation.