County seeks to preserve its status

Certification: State officials are considering removing Howard County from Maryland's land preservation program.

March 20, 2005|BY A SUN STAFF WRITER

Western Howard County is a canvas of contradictions: farms and picturesque equestrian pastures, huge subdivisions and traffic congestion at peak hours every day and vast open spaces standing as shields against the pressures of development.

Those safeguards may be too little and the development too great, though, for state officials, who are considering removing the county from Maryland's land preservation program.

The removal would cost the county an estimated $250,000 annually. But Joy Levy, the county's administrator for agriculture preservation, says the ramifications are not just economic.

"We've been in the agriculture preservation business longer than any other county," she says. "The symbolism of losing state certification is significant to us. Certification has implications to the credibility to the program. It recognizes that the county has an effective program."

Just how effective is at issue. After inordinate delay, that question may be decided Tuesday when officials of the state program - Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Foundation (MALPF) - meet to consider whether to certify Howard County for another two years, or, in effect, drop it from the program.

The board's position, though, is more a recommendation to the state Department of Agriculture, which has the final word.

Marsha L. McLaughlin, director of the county's Department of Planning and Zoning, says there is an even more important reason to be re-certified: The first of 4,000 preserved acres could, under some circumstances, begin coming back onto the market this year for development.

"That's something that everyone is trying to avoid," McLaughlin says. "It's important that the county and the state send the same message about how important agriculture preservation is. Certification helps do that."

The state program was established in 1977 as the nation's first attempt to retain farming and check sprawl.

The principle architect of the program was then-state Sen. James Clark Jr., who has placed almost 550 acres in preserve in Howard County.

"I've thought land is a natural resource and not a commodity to be sold," he says. "I just wanted to keep the land as it was and pass it on to my children.

"If it wasn't for [preservation efforts], we wouldn't have open space in a few years."

The program has two key components. The first allows farmers to place their property in temporary preserve for five years. They receive no payment, but are granted tax credits in some counties. The second, and by far the more important, acquires development rights from farmers and places their land into permanent preservation.

For their part, the farmers are prohibited from subdividing the land.

At the end of last year, about $333 million had been paid to place almost 240,000 acres into permanent preserve in the state.

Denial of state certification would not end the county's preservation efforts. In addition to participating in MALPF, the county has its own agricultural preservation program. Through a combination of both, about 19,000 acres have been preserved in western Howard County.

This is not the first time the state and county have been at odds. The state was poised four years ago to deny certification, but that was avoided after then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening intervened at the request of county officials. The matter has remained in limbo since.

While both sides insist the issue is more complicated than sheer numbers, it is numbers that are driving the controversy. And the basic measurement is density, or the number of homes allowed per acre.

The state does not set density requirements, though a maximum of one unit per 25 acres is an "implied threshold," says Joseph F. Tassone, director of Resources Conservation Planning in the Maryland Department of Planning and coordinator of the certification program.

The county permits one home for every 4.25 acres in areas zoned rural conservation, which includes the biggest chunk of western Howard County and where preservation efforts are focused.

In contrast, Baltimore County permits one unit for every 50 acres. For the state, the mathematics are simple: More land can be preserved at far less cost there and in many other areas than in Howard County.

"There is a question of degree here," says Tassone. " ... What is allowed by [Howard County] zoning is too great.

"We became concerned about Howard County in the 1990s and started talking with them about it . ... It began to be clear that what we were hoping to see was not going to materialize."

It is not a matter of obstinacy on the county's part, all parties in the dispute agree. Indeed, there is general acknowledgement that it is virtually impossible for Howard County to meet the state's density principles.

"It is certainly going to be difficult," Tassone says.

There isn't "that much land left to preserve" in the county, says James Conrad, executive director of the Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Foundation.

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