Md. farmland now preserved could soon raise crop of houses

State program allows buyback of development rights after 25 years

May 29, 2002|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

For 22 years the state has saved farmland - more than 200,000 acres of it - by paying owners not to develop.

Now, some who own farms that were protected in the program's early years have visions of a cash crop of houses. They are eyeing a provision in their contracts with the state that offers the possibility of buying their way out of the preservation deal after 25 years.

Such escape attempts would be fraught with bureaucratic and financial hurdles. But the idea is tempting, because land values have skyrocketed.

And if any farmer is successful in winning back development rights on protected land, the ripples are likely to create turmoil for Maryland's hard-fought effort to protect its rural heritage against the encroachment of suburbia.

"It's really a house of cards statewide," said Joseph W. Rutter Jr., Howard County's planning director, who said he'll fight to keep local land in the program. "Once they make the decision in one place, it's going to be very difficult in other jurisdictions to stop it. ... You can't say yes to one and no to the rest."

In the next five years, the door to development could be opened for nearly 10,000 acres now under preservation. Developers own some of the farms.

The contracts drawn up by the Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Foundation specify that landowners can buy back development rights after a quarter-century by paying the difference between the current appraised value of the land and its value for agriculture - if a bevy of state and local officials agree that profitable farming is no longer possible.

Some landowners say they've got years' worth of bills as proof.

"There's nothing you can do with the farm," said Michael Pishvaian, 65, who owns one in Montgomery County that he says has never paid for itself. "I could get the development rights back, divide the land and sell it as eight parcels of 25 acres."

As the moment of truth approaches, state officials say they do not expect an exodus from the program because the buyback clause was meant for extreme cases. But conservationists and planners warn that if property owners do get out:

County and state officials will spend their days fighting to save land they thought already had been preserved rather than looking for more land to save. As it is, thousands of agricultural acres are converted to housing every year.

Farmers could end up stuck near subdivisions they thought would never be built, and owners of farms adjacent to those in the state program could decide not to preserve their property.

Owners who believed they were protecting their land forever will find that guarantee gone.

Bitter battle looms

It is shaping up to be a bitter battle between farmers - some of whom say they thought the commitment was 25 years, period - and preservationists, who see a slippery slope.

"It'll be bad if anybody gets out," said Ned Halle, vice president of the Baltimore County-based Land Preservation Trust. "People ... are going to be in there making sure the good fight is fought and that the system is not manipulated."

State, who argue that the clear intent of the program is permanent preservation, aren't wringing their hands, because they believe it will be difficult to meet the requirements of the buyback clause.

"I always tell farmers: `Don't think about getting out in 25 years; this is forever,'" said Craig Nielsen, the assistant attorney general who counsels the state Department of Agriculture. "You couldn't come in and say, `I'm sorry, I can't farm.' It's whether anybody could farm that."

Roy W. Kienitz, the state's secretary of planning, points out that many preserved acres are not at much risk for now, because farming still dominates in Western Maryland and on the Eastern Shore.

"The great majority of tracts are not going to have a developer knocking on the door," he said.

But some parcels are tucked in places where open land is scarce, valuable and surrounded by development. Many local preservationists expect the test case to come from Howard County, because expensive subdivisions have brought more than 14,000 people to the rural west since 1980 and clogged the roads that farmers use.

"I'm afraid it'll go to court, and Lord only knows what will happen when something goes to court," said Ann Jones, vice president of the Howard County Conservancy.

"You hire the right attorney, he keeps arguing and eventually he's going to get it out," agreed Bill Amoss, who administers land preservation efforts in Harford County.

Amoss supported unsuccessful state legislation last year that would have eliminated the 25-year clause for future purchases, bringing it in line with local efforts. He wishes that property owners had the right to waive the buyback option - before more land is willed to descendants or sold to people who are less preservation-minded.

"Now is the time to do something about it, and not wait until they start pulling out," Amoss said. "When you leave it up in the air like that, and there's so much money to be made ... it's kind of scary."

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