County plans for saving land under review

Panel looking for ways to help longtime farmers

Program funding reduced

Report to be presented to Owens by end of year

Anne Arundel

November 17, 2003|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,SUN STAFF

After nearly five years of steady progress -- and in light of waning funding -- Anne Arundel County is re-examining its farm and woodlands preservation program, which has kept more than 10,000 acres from going the way of tract housing and cul-de-sacs.

A seven-member review committee appointed by County Executive Janet S. Owens is looking to sharpen the program's focus on long-standing farmers and their families.

"We all agree that the program was designed to preserve agricultural land," said Jeff Opel, chairman of the Agricultural Preservation Program Review Committee. "What good is agricultural land without the farmer? We need to help preserve the farmer, too."

Opel and other county officials said that the committee is discussing refining the system used to evaluate program applicants so that longtime farming families would receive precedence over "investors" who have only owned the land for several years.

In part, the shift is attributed to budget constraints. Owens cut funding for the agricultural preservation program this year to $1.8 million from $3 million the previous year. State funding for such programs also has been reduced.

County officials and committee members say they want to make the most of the money they have.

"We want to keep the emphasis on the family farmers," said Betty Dixon, county land use and environment coordinator.

To that end, the committee also is discussing ways to promote farm-oriented businesses and perhaps provide more flexibility for such enterprises within the current rural zoning code.

"Farming is totally different than the way it was 20 years ago," said Stephen Hopkins, a third-generation farmer from Lothian who serves on the committee.

Hopkins sold the development rights on 78 acres through the state Rural Legacy program. But he said some farmers are reluctant to participate in preservation programs because they fear regulations will keep them from starting farm-based businesses such as canning or bottling or wine-tasting rooms, all of which could add value to farm-raised items.

"If you want farmers to stay working, you have to be less stringent," he said.

Members of the committee also may reinstate a provision, dropped in 1999, which would let a landowner buy back development rights sold to the county if it could be proven at the end of 25 years that the property was unfit for agricultural purposes.

"That just allows for some more comfort for the people venturing into these contracts," said Christopher Wilson, a committee member and owner of Obligation Farm in Harwood, a horse training and boarding facility.

Wilson sold the development rights on 182 acres to the state as part of the Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Foundation. County funds were used to match the state contribution.

Four out of five public members of the review committee have participated in some form of land preservation program. Opel said that the county sought members who had experience with the programs, as well as farm-based businesses and the farming community.

Funding for the county preservation program, which was started in 1991, may also be a topic of discussion among committee members.

State legislators, faced with gloomy deficit projections in the most recent two budgets, scaled back funds for preservation in programs such as Rural Legacy and GreenPrint. Spending on land conservation projects statewide has dropped from $86.6 million last year to $79.6 million this year, said George Mauer, a senior planner with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

But Dixon and other county officials said that local residents should not be put off by budget constraints. Owens, who was raised on a tobacco farm in Bristol, has made farm preservation a cornerstone of her administration, protecting more than 6,000 acres since 1998.

"We certainly hope that we can move forward," said Barbara Polito, who oversees the county's preservation program. "We need to have applications in hand when budget time comes around. ... If we don't have interest, it will be hard to go to the County Council and ask for the program to be funded."

A final report by the committee, which meets at 8 a.m. Wednesdays, will be delivered to the Owens administration before the end of the year, said Opel, who is also the director of the county's soil conservation district.

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