Saving older farms a priority

Panel recommends giving more land-use options

Zoning code `very restrictive'

Reinstated buyback could ease financial hardship

February 15, 2004|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

Anne Arundel County should target its agricultural preservation efforts at land owned by longtime farming families and give those families more options for using the land once it is preserved, a panel of farmers and farm experts recommended last week.

Such measures would help the county preserve its farming industry, instead of just preserving open land, said Jeff Opel, the chairman of the panel.

"We've done a very good job of preserving our land base, but it's equally important to preserve the farmer," said Opel, who is also director of the county's soil conservation district. "In order to keep them viable, we must be very flexible in terms of what we allow them to do on the land."

Panel members Steve Hopkins, a Lothian cattle and grain farmer who sold 78 of his 200 acres into the state's Rural Legacy program, said the county places too many restrictions on preserved land.

"I feel if you're selling your development rights, you don't need all these other rules piled on," Hopkins said, adding that numerous other agencies police environmental standards on farms.

The panel also recommended that the county reinstate a buyback option, which was part of the preservation program until 1999. Such an option would allow a farmer facing financial hardship to buy back the land from preservation and attempt to sell it on the open market.

The county also should consider buying particularly desirable farms with upfront cash payments, the panel said. Such lump purchases might be more appealing to some farmers than the current 25-year payout, Opel said.

The panel, appointed by County Executive Janet S. Owens, had been meeting for months to generate recommendations that might make the county's preservation program more appealing to farmers. Owens is expected to review the support and consider changes based on the recommendations.

The county has preserved about 10,000 acres since 1991 and county leaders hope to preserve 10,000 more by 2010.

The panel's first three recommendations would change the county's preservation program to favor longtime farmers. County officials use a point system to rank their interest in the farms that qualify for preservation, and the panel said family-operated farms and farms that have been owned by the same family for many years should receive extra points.

"The longtime farmer is a piece of the infrastructure," Opel said. "What we're saying is that if there's a choice between an entrepreneur who has just purchased the land and a farmer who has farmed the land for 50 years, we think the farmer who has been there 50 years is the better buy."

Flexibility was the panel's other favorite topic.

With demand for tobacco - once the county's chief cash crop - declining, Anne Arundel farmers are searching for alternatives. For the small- to mid-size farms that dominate the county, niche uses such as wineries, flower fields, pumpkin patches and horse-riding rings are part of the solution.

Owens, who grew up on a tobacco farm in south county, has described such "boutique" farming as the wave of the future in Anne Arundel.

But many niche operations require light production in addition to crop harvesting, and such activity is not permitted under the county's agricultural zoning. Farmers are nervous about selling their land into preservation under such rules, Opel said.

"For example, growing peppers would qualify as farming, but making salsa would fall under commercial," he said. "The zoning code is very, very restrictive."

Hopkins said many farmers are eager to combine agriculture with entertainment by putting on horse shows or showing off pumpkin patches or corn mazes. Farmers believe such activities present no environmental threat, but county codes restrict those uses to commercial zones.

The county's land-use department is working on an overhaul of its zoning codes, so Hopkins and Opel expressed optimism that a more flexible definition of agriculture might be on the way.

"You've got to be able to change with the times," Hopkins said. "If you want farming, you can't keep putting all these restrictions on it."

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