Development corral

October 25, 2011

As a follow-up to last week's observation that a plan to expand Harford County's development area is ill-conceived, it's worth noting that the county government has moved to spend $7 million on what has long been a fairly popular program: agricultural preservation.

The program is one that bears a bit of explanation to those not familiar with the details. The owner of agricultural land applies to be included in the program and upon inclusion, sells any development rights that may be associated with the property to the county. Since the county now owns those development rights, the property may not be built out for housing and the restriction is written into the property's covenants.

Though it is theoretically possible for the owner of a property to buy back out of the arrangement, it rarely happens because the cost of buying out increases over time because of market forces. As a result, land that ends up in a farm preservation program will remain under till or hoof for the foreseeable future.

The program is popular in Harford County and other suburban environs largely because the people who increased the demand for residential development, namely those of us who moved into neighborhoods built in the last 30 or so years, moved into those neighborhoods because we liked the idea of living in a place with rural character and bucolic vistas.

Therein lies the great paradox of suburban America: Everyone wants to move to the country, which increases the pressure to build more houses in the country, making the countryside more urban than agricultural as the years pass and more houses are built.

While it's easy to look at the latest major public works project built to accommodate a much expanded suburban Harford — namely the reconfiguration of the Route 24 area at I-95 — and conclude that the countryside has been lost, there remain plenty of places where rural character is more than just a selling point for a house.

True, Harford County's development area, known as the development envelope, is crowded and often congested. It's sometimes shocking, however, the degree that the look of the county shifts when the line is crossed from the development envelope to the agricultural preservation area.

Preserving farmland isn't cheap. The county will be spending $7 million over the next 20 years on the latest properties in the program, which add up to 1,204 acres. On average, that comes out to about $290 per year per acre to make sure no houses are built. And there wasn't necessarily any guarantee that any of the acres in question would ever have caught the eye of a developer.

The general public support for agricultural preservation in Harford County should be a strong signal that expanding the county's development area is something that shouldn't be done lightly.

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