County land grows

Officials bid for 400 acres for preservation plan

October 07, 2007|By Kimberly Marselas | Kimberly Marselas,Special to The Sun

Anne Arundel officials are on the verge of securing the development rights to nearly 400 acres of Lothian farmland, shoring up efforts by County Executive John R. Leopold to preserve large agricultural tracts and other open space early in his administration.

The County Council last week approved spending as much as $1.9 million to buy the rights on parcels of 84 acres and 107 acres, both of which could remain as working farms as part of an installment purchase program. The council also backed efforts to appraise a third farm of 185 acres that would be preserved through a joint county-state program.

The purchase of large-scale, privately held properties would add to a growing stable of land preserved since Leopold took office in December. His administration has moved to halt development at the 857-acre former Naval Academy Dairy Farm in Gambrills, acquired 547 acres on the former Crownsville Hospital Center site and bought a 30-acre parcel in Wayson's Corner that was slated for a Target-anchored shopping plaza.

"It's been a major priority of this administration to preserve land," Leopold said. "The land is not something that we own. We belong to it. We have a responsibility to preserve it for future generations."

Several county officials were either unavailable Friday or unable to confirm the total amount of land preserved under Leopold, but the county's chief lobbyist, Alan Friedman, named five projects totaling 1,489 acres. His list did not include development rights purchased from individuals or pending sales.

By the end of 2006, Anne Arundel County had protected 12,000 acres of farmland -- over half of it during the administration of Leopold's predecessor, Janet S. Owens -- through various state and local programs. Some allow farmers to continue working on their land but reward them with tax incentives or government-funded payments to ease pressure from developers. Noncommercial landowners have won as much as $10,000 an acre. It's not clear how much open space the county has preserved.

Last month, 19 landowners representing more than 800 acres attended a county-sponsored meeting in Edgewater to learn more about preserving their property. Barbara Polito, who administers the county's land preservation programs, said no one had applied but there was "strong interest" from several attendees.

Leaders of local environmental groups are buoyed by Leopold's preservation efforts. Amanda Spake, vice president of South Arundel Citizens for Responsible Development, or SACReD, said protecting land ensures the county's "rural quality of life" and preserves the health of local waterways.

During her eight years in office, Owens helped put 12,000 acres of farmland and open space into land preservation programs. While Spake spoke highly of Owens' work to save farmland, she praised Leopold's efforts to protect a more balanced mix of agricultural properties and open space.

Leopold, a Republican and former five-term delegate in the General Assembly, said he is pushing preservation because he fears state support for local programs could be cut in a tough budget year. He's eyeing other properties he wants to preserve, but declined to identify them or any specific section of the county he's targeting.

Polito said negotiations are continuing for as much as 165 acres in Harwood owned by Herbert Catterton and 55 acres in Gambrills owned by Wendell and Marsha Thompson.

The three properties considered by the council last week all have agricultural uses. The 84-acre Ford/Addis farm on Old Solomons Island Road includes a horse boarding operation, 27 acres of pasture and 55 acres of woodlands.

The Talbott family has owned its 107-acre farm on Fishers Station Road since at least the early 1940s, said Lee Thornton, the wife of Francis B. Talbott III. About 50 acres of the property are leased to a local farmer for grain production. Thornton said she and her husband are preserving the property so that it will remain a farm.

The 185-acre Hall farm has an asking price of $3.3 million and is also leased to a farmer for grain. It abuts other preserved land in the Herring Bay watershed.

Many of the administration's recent efforts have been in southern Anne Arundel, but Leopold has also moved to protect swaths of green space elsewhere. The county has exclusive rights to lease the former Naval Academy farm, which may eventually accommodate community garden plots or other green-friendly activities.

Having secured the western side of the Crownsville Hospital Center from the state in March, Leopold said at the time that it would serve as a "prelude" to securing the full campus of nearly 1,200 acres. The state has yet to announce a deal for the remaining 648 acres, on the east side of Interstate 97.

Leopold said the $6.1 million spent in May on the Wayson's Corner property was a critical purchase, as the tract off Route 4 is adjacent to the Parris Glendening Nature Preserve at Jug Bay. He said he's focusing attention on properties near the Chesapeake watershed because less development means fewer sidewalks, roadways and run-off.

Spake said she would like to see more focus on shoreline protection, as well as the purchase of small lots such as a pond in Fairhaven that she said could soon fall to developers. She wants to ensure that preservation remains a key priority as the county revises its growth plan for the first time in a decade.

"It's important to involve citizens and keep these types of ideas on agricultural preservation and open space under discussion and on the table," Spake said.

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