Preserving agricultural acreage a top priority

April 24, 2005|By Erika Hobbs | Erika Hobbs,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The Hibberds were reluctant to cash in on the multimillion-dollar potential of their 1796 family heirloom to ease their egg farm's debt.

The heirloom is the land itself, and parceling off to developers the 275-acre farm that was handed down by their Quaker miller ancestors would be like slicing off a limb to fight a cold, the Hibberds say. The debt would go away, but so would the land.

"It's kind of a curse when you have something in the family that long," said Bill Hibberd, owner of Mill Dale Farms Inc. outside New Windsor "You hate to be the one that sells it [to be turned] into houses."

Yet in a way, the family did cash in on their land. Two years ago, Mill Dale became one of the 385 farms now preserved under a 26-year-old voluntary Carroll County program that pays farmers to keep their land. The only thing Hibberd and other owners give up is the right to develop property on the farm.

County officials have made the preservation of Carroll's long agricultural history a planning priority. Yet some developers say that the county's plan isn't economically sound, and some farmers say they resent relinquishing their development rights.

"I don't like it at all," Hibberd said. "But it was the lesser of two evils - that or losing the farm."

Carroll is among several counties leading the state's nationally recognized efforts to preserve farmland from development. During the last 25 years, Carroll has set aside more than 44,800 acres. Its goal is to preserve 52,000 more by 2020, or about one-third the size of its land mass.

Its preservation rate often outpaces that of other counties, state planning officials say, in part because Carroll is one of the few that supplements state funds with its own money.

But acreage is meaningless if the proper zoning laws and budget aren't in place, state officials say. Carroll's, they add, is among the better plans.

"[Carroll County] instituted many ways of doing things that are advancing the cause of agriculture land preservation in a lot of important, subtle and original ways," said Joe Tassone, director of resource conservation planning at the state Department of Planning.

The county took deliberate strides to "protect the heritage and beauty" of Carroll - they couldn't afford not to, said county Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge.

"If we don't buy the land now, it won't be there," she said.

"Farming is why people move to Carroll County in the first place - because they want to live in the country, see the farm animals, the corn growing, the wheat in fields."

Agriculture is Carroll's leading industry, with a market value topping $70 million, state estimates show.

Not only is it worth protecting that sizable industry, but the county also saves money by preserving the farmland, Gouge and county budget director Ted Zaleski said.

Zaleski said that studies in the 1990s - the most current available - showed that the county spent less to maintain its agriculture sector than its residential developments.

According to the studies, he said, the county spent between 50 and 60 cents to support each of its commercial, industrial and agricultural sectors for every $1 in revenue they generated for the county.

In contrast, the county spent about $1.20 to provide services to residential developments.

Development, he said, means more people, and more people means more schools, stores, police, water supplies and roads - daunting costs for a county with a $263 million operating budget.

No new studies are planned, but Zaleski estimated that the county spends roughly equal amounts to support commercial, agricultural and residential sectors.

He and Gouge maintain it makes economic sense for the county to preserve the land.

"We need to build, but we will as we can afford it," Gouge said.

Tom Ballentine, co-director of government affairs for the Home Builders Association of America, acknowledged there are good reasons to preserve farm land.

"But saving money through preservation versus new home construction and real estate in general isn't one of them. The numbers just don't add up," he said.

The state, he said, funds preservation programs through the real estate transfer tax.

But economics is only part of the picture, Zaleski said.

"It's about a desire to preserve some of our rural heritage, not only about money," he said.

The Lippys agree. In the mid-1990s, the owners of Lippy Brothers Inc., a grain farm in Hampstead, placed about 1,500 of their 10,000 acres into the program.

"We asked: `Do we want the [development] money or do we want to preserve the county's character?'" said owner Wilson Lippy, 73.

So they put the acres in the program to relieve some debt - which most farmers have - to make it easier for future generations to do business, his brother Donald said.

"But, look: It was easy for me, I live way back on a big, old farm where I lived as a boy," Wilson Lippy said. "I don't want that to change."

The county funds more than three-fourths of the program's $10 million budget. The rest comes from state and federal aid.

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