Progress on preservation

County plan to pay more for farmland appears headed for approval

March 24, 2006|By LARRY CARSON | LARRY CARSON,SUN REPORTER

The Robey administration's plans to double the top price per acre the county will pay farmers to preserve their land appears headed for County Council approval, though several council members worry it could spark a price war with developers.

Meanwhile, another thorny farm issue has surfaced - whether adult children of farmers who help work the land can build and occupy tenant houses on the family's property. That is due for more discussion at the council's work session next week.

The shift from the current top price of $20,000 an acre to $40,000 for prime farmland is intended to "entice property owners to come into the program," Joy Levy, the county's agricultural preservation administrator, testified at a council public hearing this week. The county has not enrolled a farm in its preservation program since 2002, leaving more than $12 million in unspent transfer tax money.

"I would hate to see Howard County become wall-to-wall houses," testified farmer David Patrick, who heads the county's Agricultural Land Preservation Board.

The League of Women Voters "strongly supports" the change, its co-president, Grace Kubofcik, testified at the hearing, as did Bridget Mugane, president of the Howard County Citizens Association.

"The county cannot compete with private developers who pay the going rate. Obviously, we need to become competitive," Mugane said.

Kubofcik urged "aggressive discussion" with owners of 16 farms larger than 100 acres each that total 3,118 acres, and also with the owners of another 3,530 acres of farmland on parcels ranging from 20 to 100 acres each, she said.

Doughoregan Manor, the 892-acre Carroll family estate scheduled to lose the protection of a 30-year state historic easement next year, is the largest farm parcel in the county.

No one appeared at the council's hearing to testify against the price-increase resolution, which will be voted on April 3.

Council members said they are likely to approve the change, though Chairman Christopher J. Merdon, an Ellicott City Republican, and member Charles C. Feaga, a western county Republican, said later that they worry about the effect the higher price will have on the overall market for land.

"When you get to $40,000 [an acre], developers will give you $42,000," Feaga said, adding that "I'm not against [the resolution]."

Merdon also is concerned, he said, that even the higher price per acre might not solve the puzzle of how to preserve historic Doughoregan Manor.

"I'm not sure it even meets the figure the [Carroll] family wants," he said.

State and county officials are reviewing ways of helping the Carrolls raise enough money to repair and maintain their 280-year-old mansion and outbuildings while preserving the block of farmland that surrounds them. No consensus plan has emerged.

Councilman Ken Ulman, a west Columbia Democrat, said later that the county will just have to wait and see how the higher price works in attracting new farmland.

"I think the developers will pay what the market will bear," said Ulman. "Our hope is this change will allow us to achieve our goal of preserving more land."

On the tenant house issue, a western county family is opposing an attempt by planning officials to have written into law an unwritten policy of allowing only hired farm workers to live in tenant houses.

Attorney Preston A. Pairo III argued for the Sullivan family of Lisbon, who were denied permission to build three houses for family use on their 85-acre farm, which has been in the county's preservation program since 1986.

Barbara Sullivan said her extended family wants to re-occupy the farm they own off Bushy Park Road, but the county denied them permission to build two houses for her immediate family and her sister's family, in addition to one for her mother-in-law on the property.

The younger family members would work cattle and horses on the farm, she said, but the county said they would not qualify as tenant farmers and could not build tenant houses, based on unwritten county policy.

County planners want the council to approve a bill containing written restrictions to limit the use of farm tenant houses to farm workers, not owners.

"We're not trying to skirt any issue here. We want to work the land," Sullivan said.

Merdon sympathized at the hearing, after noting that a tenant house can't be subdivided and sold to a stranger.

"It sends a wrong message to the farming community" about participating in preservation, he said.larry.carson@baltsun.com

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