Agricultural preservation still a hard sell in Howard

County sweetens its offer to farmers, but few opt to cede development rights

March 09, 2004|By Liz F. Kay | Liz F. Kay,SUN STAFF

Even after Howard County nearly tripled the maximum price offered per acre, owners of just four farms have taken the bait and applied for easements through the agricultural land preservation program.

Last fall, in an attempt to protect the rural character of the west, the county boosted the top rate from $7,200 to $20,000 an acre and changed the requirements to make more farms eligible.

"I was hoping that it might have sparked more interest than it did," said Joy Levy, Howard's administrator of agricultural land preservation programs, who added she was "hoping for more applicants and larger farms."

But preservation can be a tough choice to make, with the price of land for homes topping more than $75,000 an acre and more than $30,000 for transferable development rights.

The four farms under consideration are: a 20-acre property in Woodbine; a 25-acre farm in Glenwood; a 31-acre property in Marriottsville and a 32.5-acre property in Clarksville.

"I think they're good candidates," Levy said.

Landowners who choose to place their property in agricultural easement continue to own it but agree not to develop it in exchange for small payments over time. At the end of a 25- to 30-year period, they receive the bulk of their principal.

Planning and Zoning staff members are reviewing the applications, using criteria such as soil quality, agricultural value and development pressures to determine what price per acre to offer the landowners, with $15,000 being the average.

A public hearing on the applications before the Agricultural Preservation Advisory Board has been tentatively scheduled for the end of this month.

There are more than 13,000 acres in the county's purchase program, and the state holds easements on about 4,000 acres in Howard County. In total, nearly 19,000 acres have been preserved, including easements held by other agencies and land from which the owners have transferred development rights.

About 14,000 acres in the rural west are uncommitted. The changes to the program made about 3,500 additional acres eligible, although priority will be given to farms in the rural-conservation zone, a priority conservation area. Given available funding, Howard could preserve about 300 to 400 acres a year for the next few years, Levy said.

None of the owners of five farms that applied during the last period in 2001 accepted the offer, Levy said. In 2000, one 400-acre farm applied to and successfully entered the program.

Jason A. Parker, who owns the 66-acre Argonaut Farm in West Friendship, had applied to the land preservation program in 2001 and was disappointed in the county's offer.

"The biggest drawback is you don't get it for 30 years," Parker said. With the assessment on his home and buildings going up 50 percent this year, he said it wasn't attractive.

Randall Nixon of Nixon's Farm said he receives five to seven letters a week about his family's 128 acres in West Friendship. Developers also "try to meet me in really stupid ways," like bumping into him at the supermarket, he said.

Although Nixon thinks preservation programs are good, "I just don't think they're good for everybody," he said.

"It's not consistent with what's going on in the marketplace," Nixon said.

And Howard County has become less friendly to farmers, he said. Nixon pointed to Little League games, which were once scheduled on weekends so children could complete farm chores. With increasing numbers of suburbanites enrolling, games are being played many evenings, he said.

"The culture of farming and the culture of land-owning has disappeared," Nixon said.

But that does not mean that all remaining rural land in Howard County will be developed.

"I don't think it's necessarily indicative that there isn't an interest in preservation," said Ann Jones, vice president of the Howard County Conservancy, a nonprofit group that offers agricultural and conservation easements.

"I think ... it's a question of which preservation niche the county's ag program fills," she said. Only land in the rural west is eligible, and priority is given to larger parcels, although the county increased the number of eligible properties by decreasing the minimum acreage from 25 to 20 for land adjacent to parks or already preserved land. Also, farmers can sell their development rights as "density-exchange options" to be used elsewhere in the west.

"A lot of property owners are looking at the density-exchange option, and the county had such a successful program in the past," she said.

Residential land developer Paul Revelle of Revellopment said that density-exchange options cost about $7,000 an acre as recently as four years ago. Today, "it's now north of $30,000 an acre," he said. The agricultural preservation legislation also made about 1,300 additional acres eligible for the exchange option, but pricing has not changed drastically with the increased supply.

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