Mount Airy parcel won't be developed

Land is first in 14 years to be preserved by state

15 acres are missing puzzle piece

Owners won't subdivide in exchange for $116,500

Howard County

May 14, 2002|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

Fifteen acres isn't a huge swath of land to preserve, all things being equal.

But in Howard County - where the gap between preservation dollars and development dollars is making it nearly impossible to convince farmers to forever forgo selling to builders - it's practically a coup.

Owners of the 15.3-acre property in the far western tip of the county are the first in 14 years to accept a conservation offer from the state agricultural preservation program, a streak Howard preservationists are relieved to see broken. Settlement is expected later in the year.

"It seems so basic - 15 acres, big deal. But around here ... you've got land values so high that people don't think about preservation a lot," said Jeff Everett, the county's land preservation administrator.

Howard County's preservation program, which bought its last easement in 1997, is in a dry spell of its own. Officials have had $15 million to spend for the past two years but only one taker. The owners of that Brookeville property known as Waterford Farm also have not gone to settlement yet.

County officials were once successful in their drive to preserve farmland by buying development rights. More than 12,800 acres have been saved by that method since the county program began in 1978, Everett said. Another 3,937 acres were preserved through the state program.

But real estate values have spiked as the land available for development dwindles. Though Howard County's preservation program offers as much as $7,200 an acre, one of the best rates in the nation, developers are offering thousands and thousands more.

For want of applicants since 1988, Howard has not shared in millions in state funds from the Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Foundation. This fiscal year, each county was eligible for $1.2 million, and nine - including Baltimore and Carroll counties - took full advantage of the money.

Everett has found that some landowners who want to keep farming their land are opting for the county's "density exchange" program instead. In that program, landowners sell their development rights to builders, who then transfer the rights to another property where they would be allowed to subdivide more lots than zoning normally would permit.

Those who choose development end up preserving some land, too, because by law many western Howard subdivisions must be clustered to leave open swatches. Between density exchange and clustering, 1,631 acres of agricultural land have been preserved in the county.

But those parcels are usually surrounded by houses. Everett likes Robert and Patricia Estes' 15.3-acre property in Mount Airy because it sits near several hundred acres already preserved by the county and the state, in a greenbelt of farmland.

"This piece fits into a puzzle - that's what I try to go after," he said. "I don't like to see subdivisions interlaced with ag pres."

If the state Board of Public Works approves, the Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Foundation will pay the Esteses about $116,500 to place an easement on 14 acres of their land, Everett said.

The $8,322 per-acre payment would be among the highest made by the foundation, which calculates both market value and agricultural value and then gives land owners the difference. An independent contractor appraised the Estes' land at $126,000, Everett said.

"This will help ... clear up some of the questions about whether or not we pay higher values for farmland," said Jim Conrad, the state foundation's administrator, who believes the state's last purchase in Howard 14 years ago might have given local farmers the impression that the state doesn't pay enough.

The offer on the Mount Airy land might not have the effect Conrad is hoping for because it is still woefully below what developers are offering. Raw land in western Howard County typically sells for $20,000 to $30,000 an acre and up, developers say.

But Conrad said developers usually offer contracts that give them a way out if they don't get the permits they need or the number of lots they expected. "I don't think it's necessarily directly comparable, because we don't have those kinds of contingencies," he said. "It's really a clean offer."

Still, the huge gap is what landowners notice.

Patricia Estes said she and her husband had a difficult time deciding to accept the state's offer, even though they believe in preservation. When they moved in about 12 years ago, their land was appraised for the county program - and the state's more recent market appraisal was lower, she said. She knows land values haven't dropped.

The retired couple - who raise day lilies on part of the property - could have subdivided some of their land and made more money.

But crowded schools are delaying development in western Howard and it could be years before anyone could build on their property. That helped settle it, Patricia Estes said.

"Now that we made the decision, I'm really happy that we did," she said. "We have deer here; we have a new mama fox that has three little ones. ... We really have a beautiful setting."

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.