13 Seek To Preserve Their Land

County Will Decide How Much Of 1,427 Acres To Buy

August 09, 2009|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,larry.carson@baltsun.com

The largest group of Howard County landowners in years sought to preserve their farmland forever in the Agricultural Preservation application period that just ended, according to Joy Levy, program administrator.

"We are pretty thrilled" at the big response, Levy said.

Thirteen landowners are seeking to sell to the county development rights on 1,427 acres, which is probably more than the county can afford right now, Levy said. That compares with three farmers who preserved 247 acres in 2007, the last time the county took applications - just after the maximum price per acre doubled to $40,000.

"Over the last decade, about 600 acres have been preserved. This is our big opportunity," County Executive Ken Ulman said. He is especially anxious, he said, to see if the 500 acres of Doughoregan Manor, the ancestral home of the Carroll family north of Route 108, can be preserved, since the plan for Erickson Retirement Communities to develop a 1,500-unit complex on another portion of the Carroll farm fell through. Doughoregan, a nearly 300-year-old estate and mansion, is the only home of a Declaration of Independence signer still in family hands.

County officials believe the recession's effect on development has made the county's top price more attractive to landowners, even as it has slowed revenues into the preservation fund, since the program's money comes from real estate transfer taxes.

But county Farm Bureau president Howie Feaga said landowners aren't just motivated by price.

"I really don't think the recession is the only reason, because [preservation] is such a lifetime commitment," he said. People have simply reached a point in their lives where they want to preserve land, and that's good for all the county's remaining farmers.

"The more we can get into preservation, the more it will be viable for farmers that are left," whether they own or rent land to farm, he said.

The county has 20,500 acres in preservation now in 240 parcels, and wants to reach 30,000 acres.

Three other Carroll family cousins have applied to separately preserve a combined 179 acres in what is called South Manor, near 650 acres of Carroll family land already in preservation.

"The next step is to score all the properties," Levy said, which starts with visits to each site by soil conservation and Agricultural Preservation board members, probably in September and October.

Getting parcels already next to or near already-preserved sections is particularly attractive, Levy said. The county carefully evaluates each offering, assigning points based on the parcel's size, location, soil quality and productivity, whether it is being actively farmed by the owner or is rented, she said. The overall score determines whether the land qualifies and how desirable it is, and thus how much the county is willing to pay per acre.

The entire process, including a formal letter from the county executive and approval by the County Council, can take up to nine months, and landowners can opt out at any time up until settlement. Once the development rights are sold, the owner will get the principal in equal annual payments over 20 years, plus twice-per-year tax-free interest payments on the unpaid portion. The county has about $40 million to spend, but Levy said that may not cover all 13 applicants.

Most of the applicants, 10 of the 13, are seeking to preserve parcels 100 acres or smaller, though two members of the Pfefferkorn family who live on Pfefferkorn Road, are offering a combined 106 acres. Another farmer, Marshall Rea, on Sheppard Lane west of the Carroll's land, is applying for 160 acres.

"We definitely want to take advantage of the situation," Levy said, before the development industry recovers and land is once more in demand.

Mario Manarelli of Ellicott City is one of the applicants. He's seeking to preserve 107 acres in two parcels in Glenwood, he said. He tried preservation once before, but it didn't work out. The recession played no part in his decision to try again, he said.

"I just want to keep the land, he said about the acreage on which he grows wheat, soybeans and corn. "I want to turn it into a winery," he said, and plant maybe 20 acres in grapes.

"I'd like to have some land left" before development closes in, he said.

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