Farmland, funds - and a principle

Stance: Howard County's decision to stick to a payout formula in its land conservation program could mean a loss of $1.5 million in funds.

March 05, 2002|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

Howard County's agricultural land preservation board could have forever protected Lambert Cissel's farm from development by paying him $9,000 an acre, but it declined to do so as a matter of principle.

Now, that stand - on the question of whether members of the board should stick to an established payout formula that would have provided Cissel with $6,855 an acre or yield to negotiations - appears to have cost the county a farm that officials have tried numerous times to preserve and $1.5 million to boot.

The money, which comes from the state's Rural Legacy preservation program, has to be spent by March 29. Jeff Everett, Howard County's land preservation administrator, said that is not nearly enough time to find a replacement farm.

"That grant's pretty much shot," said Everett, sighing.

It's a new wrinkle in the increasingly frustrating job of saving property from development in Howard County, where raw land is a hot and fast-disappearing commodity.

Quick to get in on the relatively new idea of preserving farms, the county has spent more money protecting land than nearly any other jurisdiction in the nation. But people are not eager to sign on anymore. Howard officials earmarked $15 million in county money for preservation two years ago, but none has been spent.

The owners of the sizable Waterford Farm in Glenwood intend to preserve it, but they are still working out the details. Five other property owners who applied to the county program last year have not decided whether to take the county's offers.

Those people were offered formula-based rates, just like everyone else, said Dale Hough, chairman of the agricultural land preservation board. Negotiating with Cissel would have set a very bad precedent, in his opinion - especially because $9,000 an acre would have set a price record for preservation in Howard.

"The board in general is very concerned that we appear to be even-handed and consistent with all the property owners," Hough said. "We would discredit ourselves with the rest of the landowners that we've been working with if we could somehow pull $245,000 out of the hat to meet a single landowner's demands."

Deborah Bowers, editor and publisher of the Harford County-based Farmland Preservation Report, can understand why Howard's preservation board is uneasy about getting into negotiations. But she thinks it is a shame the farm and the grant appear lost over a matter of $245,590 - the difference between the Howard formula and Cissel's asking price.

"When they have a large amount of money at stake, they might want to take a second look at how they do preservation," Bowers said. "As you know, money is a terrible thing to waste."

Cissel, who grows turf, soybeans and trees, said he does not like the idea of subdivisions on his land. But he knows his property is worth a lot of money. Two years ago, he said, a developer offered him $20,000 an acre for one of his four farms.

Cissel said he wanted a lot more than $9,000 an acre to preserve his home farm in Daisy, and came down to that price because it was the highest amount the Rural Legacy program will offer.

The price tag for his 114.5 acres: $1,030,590.

But Rural Legacy rates are based on a formula that takes into account everything from soil quality to stream buffers, and the formula priced Cissel's land at about $8,500 an acre. Because he wanted to retain the rights to build a handful of houses, Rural Legacy would give him less money, $6,855 an acre.

Everett came up with what he thought was a good solution for everyone: Let Rural Legacy pay $785,000 and the county could pick up the $245,590 difference.

"That's a hell of a deal, considering what we'd have to pay if he came into the county program," Everett said. "Why not pay a couple of [hundred] thousand instead of a couple of million?"

Most of the seven-member board, the majority of whom are farmers, did not see things Everett's way at a meeting four weeks ago. The board decided that it is best to stick with the pricing formula.

"If you deviate from a formula-driven price, that forces you into negotiation with every landowner," said board member J.G. Warfield, a part-time Howard County farmer who works for Montgomery County's soil conservation district. "It seems if we're going to use public money, we have to be as fair as possible."

One of the few board members to disagree was David Patrick, a longtime western Howard dairy farmer.

"I think we missed a chance to take a good block of ground into the program, ... and it wasn't costing [Howard County] a lot of money," he said. "I know there are board members who don't agree with me on that, but I think it would have been a good deal."

Patrick does not want to turn away the preservation opportunities that do come along. "We need to get all that we can get," he said.

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