Army joins in saving farm

County, military contribute to preservation of Darlington acres

March 25, 2007|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,Sun Reporter

Four generations of the Hopkins family have lived on a Darlington farm within earshot of an Army test site on Aberdeen Proving Ground. Unfazed by the noise nearby, the family raised dairy and beef cattle and grew crops on Priestford Farm.

But when retirement loomed, the generation that currently owns the farm considered selling the land for development.

Instead, a rare partnership between the Army and the county government has resulted in the preservation of the family's 163 acres along Deer Creek.

For almost $1.3 million, the appraised value of developing the farm, the family has relinquished its development rights on the acreage. The Army paid $675,000 and the county contributed $600,000 from its land preservation fund, adding the farm to the more than 6,000 acres already preserved in the watershed area.

"The income helps us with the upkeep and means this farm will forever be green space," said Peggy Hopkins Bachman, whose parents bought the farm 52 years ago and soon built a home for their parents. Bachman and her brother have built homes and raised their children on the farm.

"We all feel very blessed," she said.

The partnership is the first in Maryland and one of few in the nation between the Department of Defense and a local government, according to Army officials.

The Army, whose share also paid for the appraisal and an environmental study, wanted fewer neighbors, not more.

"Now we have the promise that the land won't be developed," said George Mercer, APG spokesman.

The Hopkins' farm was the last in the area that could have been developed, and the sale helped the county fill the last gap - "the hole in the doughnut" - and create a contiguous block of preserved land along Deer Creek, said William D. Amoss, manager of the county's agricultural and historic preservation program.

"It completes the circle all around the testing ground," Amoss said. "We had only so much to offer the family. It was great the Army had the additional funds to complement ours."

The family initially considered selling the property for subdivision into residential lots, Bachman said. They had recorded 11 lots several years ago and a recent revision would double that.

"When you are trying to determine the value of the property, you have to consider what could have been done on this property and what preserving it has taken away," said Margaret Niland, executive director of the Harford Land Trust, a nonprofit land preservation group that negotiated the sale.

In the past 40 years, Harford has lost about half its farmland to development, officials said. In 1960, farms accounted for 165,000 acres throughout the county. Today there are about 81,000 acres, with about 40,000 permanently preserved.

Bachman called the Army "wonderful neighbors," adding that she long ago tuned out the noise. She said she doubted it would have an impact on the sale of the land for development.

Priestford Farm adjoins the Army's Churchville Test Site, where the military tests vehicles. The possibility of a residential subdivision on its doorstep raised concerns about "civilian encroachment" and the inevitable complaints about noise, dust and lights, Mercer said.

"We are talking about huge vehicles that make lots of noise, sometimes in the middle of the night," the APG spokesman said.

The Army wanted to preserve the buffer between neighbors and the racket from testing tanks and Humvees on rough terrain.

"We have had problems in the past, when the civilian world comes closer to us," Mercer said. "We need this hilly test site and we wanted to extend our buffer zone, not see it turned into condos."

The county government also is averse to more residential development along Deer Creek, which flows into the Susquehanna River and is the source of drinking water for the city of Aberdeen.

It fell to the Harford Land Trust, which has negotiated similar deals in the past, to create the partnership that would purchase the development rights from the family. The county's only land trust, founded by residents in 1991 to acquire land through gift or purchase and conserve those resources, often creates conservation easements that restrict development.

"The family is compensated for the loss of development rights," Niland said. "The Army benefits with a buffer, and the county extends preservation along Deer Creek. It took more than two years, but the land trust made it happen."

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