On the wall maps in the county's land preservation office, the color green marks the nearly 45,000 acres that are permanently safeguarded from development.
"I want to make my map greener," said William D. Amoss, manager of the county's agricultural and historic preservation program. "The more options we have for preservation, the better it is for landowners."
Now the County Council has given the program another option.
By designating the Deer Creek Valley as a priority preservation area, the council has made it easier for the county to create a belt of preserved land that could extend from the Susquehanna River across northern Harford and into Baltimore County.
"This will assist the county to preserve viable farmlands," said Councilman Chad Shrodes.
The designation, unanimously approved by the council earlier this month, gives planners another preservation tool in the county's effort to preserve a total of 55,000 acres by 2012.
The county's preservation office has a waiting list of about 20 farms willing to go into various programs, Amoss said. Councilwoman Mary Ann Lisanti said the designation will "increase the county's ability to leverage state and federal funds and expand opportunities to acquire preservation easements."
Deer Creek Valley, a predominantly farming area, will soon experience intense development pressure as Aberdeen Proving Ground expands by about 10,000 jobs during the nationwide military base realignment known as BRAC.
The designation also brings with it the likelihood of more state Rural Legacy funds, another source of money to purchase easements, administered by the state Department of Natural Resources, officials said.
"This designation gives us more tools to accomplish our preservation goals," said Council President Billy Boniface.
About 60 percent of the Lower Deer Creek Valley is preserved through state and county programs. Of the nearly 20,000 acres in preserved farms and parkland, more than 1,500 acres are already part of Rural Legacy.
"Having [more than] half the land already preserved makes this area really attractive to the state," Amoss said. "The Rural Legacy program is always looking for concentrations of existing preservation."
The 86,000-acre Deer Creek watershed begins in southern Pennsylvania and surrounds a 73-mile stream to the Susquehanna River. Deer Creek is the source of drinking water for about 50,000 people, including all those working and living at Aberdeen Proving Ground.
"The watershed is heavily forested with more environmental, historical and cultural features that will help us preserve the rural landscape," Amoss said.
The Rural Legacy program, enacted in 1997 to counter suburban sprawl and protect natural resources, provides local jurisdictions with money to purchase easements from landowners in exchange for assurances that the land will not be sold for development. The program paid $1.1 million for the development rights on Harford farms in the watershed area last year and made about $1.5 million available this year.
Rural Legacy administrators will often consider smaller farm parcels and those with environmental features or historical significance and will give landowners who do not meet state Department of Agriculture criteria another source of preservation funding. Farmers who participate in the Rural Legacy program are required to plant trees, grasses and shrubbery along the shorelines to protect waterways.
"DNR has a four-tier ranking that includes connectivity, forest corridors, wildlife habitat and other ... features such as aquatic significance," Amoss said.
"As time evolves, we want to open the entire watershed to preservation efforts," he said. "This is a connection that makes sense."