The Harford Land Trust is introducing criteria in choosing lands for preservation and initiating extensive fund raising to deal with budget cuts, it told its members at its annual meeting Friday at Eden Mill Nature Center in Pylesville.
President Ann Helton said the nonprofit group had created a strategic plan that calls for strengthening operations, building support, increasing membership, maintaining a strong board of directors and increasing fund-raising efforts to deal with budget cuts. Now it has to implement that plan.
"We have a lot to overcome. We lost both direct and indirect funds. For the past five years we have operated without $30,000 grants from the Department of Parks and Recreation for our programs," Helton said. "We have counted on that money and now it's gone. We have about 400 members, and we want to increase this number."
Harford Land Trust has its own money to fall back on, thanks to its founder, Johnston Hegeman, who established a fund that now totals $500,000. However, this money was never intended for operation costs. "If we don't increase our operational fund, we could jeopardize our ability to operate," Helton said.
David Miller, a founding director and current executive director of the land trust, said the budget cut could mean the loss of important parcels.
"In 2001, we purchased 32 acres of woods, wetlands and waterfront property surrounding Harford County's Anita C. Leight Estuary Center for $650,000," Miller said. "Harford County Department of Parks and Recreation bought it for $695,000 with Program Open Space monies and a matching grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. If the state continues to decrease Program Open Space money they won't be able to buy land like that anymore."
Joseph E. Pfaff, director of the Harford County Department of Parks and Recreation, said the budget cuts would limit future deals like the estuary center for the next few years.
"In the past, Harford Land Trust has fronted the money to protect property instantly," Pfaff said. "Then we purchased it at a later date. We were able to do that effectively in the past. But more than 50 percent of our budget comes from Program Open Space. We have other sources of income, but it is the largest."
Pfaff said that the department operates on about a $7.5 million annual budget, but that "we are operating with $5.5 million right now. ... We will continue to partner with Harford - more than ever before. We just don't have as much money."
According to Chip Price, director of Maryland's Program Open Space, the money will be diverted back over the next four years.
Price said, "I don't set the budget. Obviously we recognize what the cuts are doing, and if we had more money we could protect more acreage and provide more recreational facilities."
Helton said she's unaware of the justification for the budget cut, but she's hoping for a quick diversion of money back into the program.
"This money may have been needed elsewhere, but it was and always has been designated for land acquisition and development," said Helton. "We want to see it back where it belongs."
According to Henry Fawell, a spokesman for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., when the governor took office he was faced with a $2 billion deficit in the state budget, which had unfunded requirements in education and health care. Ehrlich opted to pull money from several areas, including Program Open Space.
Fawell said the budget shortfall will reverse and that full funding will resume by 2009.
"The funds for Program Open Space will increase by 20 percent each year until it is fully restored," Fawell said.
"As a result of the diversion of funds, the governor has refocused the state's land-preservation strategy," Fawell said. "We no longer support the purchase of land of a questionable value. We now specialize in the preservation of lands influencing the environment around the Chesapeake Bay."
Like the state, Harford Land Trust has developed new criteria for land it will purchase.
These criteria include:
High-quality agricultural land.
Undeveloped riparian land that protects the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries.
Land with natural characteristics such as rare species and land that protects other property of importance.
"Since the inception of the program in 1991, we've given landowners options," Miller said. "Now, with the budget cuts, we have less money to buy development rights and compete with development dollars."
Miller said that in addition to decreased Program Open Space funds, racing the development time clock is also making preservation difficult.
"I read that a new technology park is being built in our county that could generate 10,000 new jobs," Miller said. "If the tech park is built and the money from Program Open Space doesn't increase, we are going to have a tough time of it."
Helton announced that Harford Land Trust is pursuing a couple of parcels valued at several million dollars.