Carroll celebrates land preservation

42,000 acres protected from development

county's goal is 100,000

November 05, 2003|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

As Carroll farmers and government officials gather tonight to celebrate preserving nearly 42,000 acres of county farmland from development, they know that the hardest part of their quest to save a total of 100,000 acres lies ahead.

Rising land costs caused by development competition, the uncertainty of state money for programs and a shrinking supply of large tracts of farmland will make the going tougher, county officials say.

But preserving farmland remains important to Carroll's quality of life and economic health, county leaders agree. They remain confident that by making government programs more versatile, and by targeting smaller farms in South Carroll, they can meet their goals.

The county is fifth in the nation and second in the state in the number of agricultural acres preserved, according to The Farmland Preservation Report, which has been published annually in Harford County for 13 years.

Montgomery County, the national leader, has saved nearly 60,000 acres from development, according to the report.

Farmers said that when the program began, landowners were more likely to sell their development rights, and protect agricultural use, just to keep subdivisions off land that their families had farmed since the 1800s.

Hampstead farmer Wilson Lippy placed 365 acres in preservation about six years ago. "Joining the program rid me of the temptation to sell lots off my land," he said. "People should realize that there is big money in development. Farmers make a financial sacrifice to preserve land into the future."

A total of 41,927 acres of Carroll farmland have been preserved at a cost of about $68 million in county, state and federal funds.

The county is paying almost three times as much per acre - the average is $2,800 - as it did when the program began. State projections estimate the cost of preserving land will increase about 5 percent a year for the next 20 years.

Though Carroll officials said it's premature to calculate a price tag for preserving an additional 60,000 acres, the cost will almost certainly be in the hundreds of millions, according to such projections.

Those rising costs come as Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has said he will re-examine whether the state should spend millions on some of the land preservation programs created by former Gov. Parris N. Glendening. Ehrlich said he will not accept new requests for preservation money until he has reviewed the programs.

The county commissioners say they're committed to spending millions on keeping developers away from farmland, regardless of state involvement.

But a waning state commitment - combined with the escalating price of increasingly scarce land - could slow progress toward the 100,000- acres goal, said Bill Powel, the man in charge of the county's preservation efforts.

"I would have to say it will be harder," Powel said.

At tonight's celebration in Westminster, the county will give commemorative plaques and signs to all who have placed their farms in preservation. The county will also show a new video that chronicles its rural preservation achievements and explains the benefits of future preservation.

Commissioner Dean L. Minnich said he would explain the importance of farmland to a newcomer by saying, "Most of the reasons you chose Carroll County can be linked in some way to its agricultural history."

Those qualities include ample open space, friendly neighbors, low crime rates and simple peace and quiet, Minnich said.

Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge said farmland preservation will also save county taxpayers money. She reasons that farms are vital to Carroll because they fuel the county's No. 1 industry - agriculture - without creating the increased demand for schools, roads and water that comes with new subdivisions.

"We're really not giving farmers a handout," she said.

Minnich said agriculture's value as an industry is sometimes forgotten in the push to attract higher-tech business to Carroll.

Sun staff writer Mary Gail Hare contributed to this article.

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