Howard preservationists think small

County strategy targets modest-sized farms for protection consideration

November 11, 2002|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

In Howard County, where large farms are rare and costly, land preservationists have turned away from the tried-and-true strategy of chasing the big score.

They're thinking small, grabbing pieces of greenery as tiny as 10 or 20 acres in the fight to keep agriculture alive.

That might seem like heresy in a state where a 100-acre farm is called modest. But Jeff Everett, Howard County's one-man preservation division, figures that little tracts play a valuable role if they're next to large protected farms.

He spent the year persuading 12 landowners with an average of 22 acres each to test the preservation waters by filling out applications.

"They are much smaller, but they're ones that are filling in little holes," said Howard County Planning Director Joseph W. Rutter Jr. "There's no sense in just sitting in the room sulking because there's no big ones coming in."

Rutter isn't ready to throw in the towel on the sizable farms with an uncommitted future. Still, Everett - who left last week for a job at the National Park Service - quickly found that such land is scarce and competition for it fierce. Even developers are pursuing smaller parcels.

"I'd like to get bigger properties if I could, but I'm not operating in an area that's conducive to that," Everett said. "You've got to think outside the box. I'm testing the limits of how small is too small."

Though Howard is the extreme example, some Baltimore suburbs are heading the same way. In Carroll County, the average preserved farm overall is 125 acres, but the average preserved last year was 73 acres, said program manager Bill Powel.

Carroll has protected 40,000 acres of farmland and wants to hit 100,000, so every little bit helps, he noted.

"But we're much happier to take applications on the larger farms," Powel said. "Sometimes we spend more time and money and energy on a smaller one than we do [on] a larger one."

Everett might have had nothing to show for his nearly two years of efforts in Howard if he recruited only for the county's own preservation program. The local initiative - which has $12.5 million earmarked for landowners willing to forgo their right to build subdivisions - is still geared toward the big catch.

Howard County reserves its highest per-acre payments for large farms and won't accept anything less than 100 acres standing alone, or 25 acres if it's next to at least 50 acres.

The 12 properties under consideration range from 10.2 acres to 40.4 acres, and all but one wouldn't make the county's cut. Instead, they're eligible for the state's preservation programs.

Owners pleased

None of the 12 Howard County properties is permanently protected yet. The owners can pull out if the offers don't appeal to them. Some, though, are sold on the idea.

"I always wanted to do it, and we could never find a way. We didn't have enough land," said Kathy Witty, 46, who is relieved to learn she can keep houses from springing up on her 18.3 acres in Poplar Springs, where horses roam.

"I just think that's a wonderful opportunity - I don't know who thought of it, it's great," said Witty, whose family runs Wit's End farm. "For those who come after me, and want a little horse farm, there'll be something for them."

Though the national trend in agriculture is consolidation, Howard County's farms are getting smaller, propelled not just by development, but by people in search of rural hobbies and entrepreneurs growing specialty crops suited to small spaces.

The average farm in Howard County is 125 acres, according to the last agricultural census. But the number of farms of 25 or fewer acres is growing, said Ginger Myers, agricultural marketing specialist with the local Economic Development Authority.

Myers supports the strategy of preserving small parcels that connect to large protected property. Big or tiny, "you're still building critical mass of land available" and removing opportunities for farm and nonfarm interests to conflict.

"I really try to fill in these pieces," agreed Everett. "You're going to compromise your investment if development gets in there."

Witty sees land preservation as a way to preserve equine culture, too.

"You can't convince me that my small parcel is not a usable piece of ground," she said.

Eight years ago, Doris Bell preserved the 93 acres in Lisbon where her family's beef cattle graze, and she's delighted that her 18.6-acre homestead in Cooksville can have the same protections.

"We're very open to do anything we can that will keep a developer from ever breaking it up," said Bell, who moved in 25 years ago. "Believe me, the pressures - if you will - are always there. You get letters all the time and phone calls all the time, and they just say, `Well, why aren't you interested? You could be really rich.'"

Developing decisions

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