Money the enticement

Doubling per-acre price aids county preservation effort

June 03, 2007|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,Sun reporter

After going without any takers for five years, Howard County's agricultural preservation program has succeeded in enticing three farmers to participate by doubling the maximum per-acre price.

Calvin Murray, 83, whose family has farmed in Howard County for generations, will sell the development rights on 166.3 acres to the county for $40,000 an acre - twice as much as he could have gotten last year. His parents bought the Mount Airy-area farm he lives on for $75 an acre in 1919, he said.

Two other farms are ready to join Howard's agricultural preservation program - one of 60 acres in West Friendship near the County Fairgrounds and another of 35 acres on Route 94 in Woodbine.

"We hoped when we raised the price that would draw farms into the program," said County Executive Ken Ulman. "We clearly have the money to add additional properties to the program."

As a county councilman last year, Ulman supported doubling the top per-acre price.

Murray, who said he is retired and rents his land to other farmers, is one of the last of his kind in Howard, where minimansions and townhouses have sprouted in recent years as fast as corn and soybeans.

"I've never been to Columbia in my life, and I don't plan on going," he said, protesting that he wants no publicity.

The rest of his 400-acre spread is in preservation, he said, but he waited before applying to enroll this 166.3 acres for one reason: "because they weren't paying anything."

Even now, developers will pay $60,000 or $70,000 an acre, Murray said.

The County Council is to expected to discuss the deal for Murray's land this month and vote on it next month.

David Patrick, another county farmer and recent past chairman of the Howard County Agricultural Land Preservation Board, rents land from Murray for his corn, soybeans and hay crops. He said he is glad to see Murray's land enter the program.

"I'd hate to see the county become wall-to-wall houses," Patrick said, noting that his family has two farms in preservation.

Joy Levy, administrator of the county program, said the price and another major change in the program have attracted Murray and two other farmers.

Instead of paying farmers over a 30-year period, the county now offers a 10-year option, she said, which is proving more popular.

Murray will get about $10.5 million over that period, with most coming at the end of the decade. The county invests the $6.7 million in principal, and the farmer gets the interest annually, with a large "balloon" payment of the principal at the end, Levy said.

Former County Executive James N. Robey put $15 million into the program, but no farmers have enrolled land since 2002.

The county has about $22 million in unspent preservation money in a fund fed annually by 25 percent of the local real estate transfer tax.

In the fiscal year that ended June 30 last year, $9.2 million was added to the fund, said Sharon Greisz, the county finance director.

Levy said the county uses a 10-item scoring system to evaluate land and decide how much to pay per acre.

Murray's land scored at the highest level, she said, mainly because of its large size, good soils and location - about 1,800 nearby acres are in preservation. The county wants to preserve farmland in large blocks.

"I'm really quite excited," Levy said about finally getting some new applicants after years of effort.

The 60-acre farm is worth $33,350 an acre on the county scoring system and the third farm $25,500 an acre, Levy said.

Those two are not quite ready for submission to the County Council, she said, but will be in several months.

J.G. Warfield, the preservation board's chairman, said he also is pleased at the breakthrough, particularly because of the high- growing quality of the farms' soil.

"I think it's wonderful that this [Murray] family wants to enroll its farm into the agricultural preservation program," he said.

larry.carson@baltsun.com

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