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County, state losing battle to preserve farmland

June 23, 1998|By GUY FLETCHER

by KEVIN G. GILBERT / staff photographer

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Farms for saleMost of Washington County's farmland is not adequately protected by zoning regulations and government programs, making the open space vulnerable to commercial and residential development, according to a statewide report issued Monday.

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Of the county's agricultural land with quality soils, the study found that only 11 percent is protected through agricultural preservation districts, under which farmers temporarily agree not to develop their property in exchange for tax credits, report said.

Another 2.6 percent is protected through the outright purchase of development rights, known as easements, the report said.

"We'd like (the percentage) to be higher, and in time it will be," said Eric Seifarth, farmland preservation administrator for the county.

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Maryland as a whole is lagging in its efforts to protect its most valuable farmland, according to the study issued by the privately funded Chesapeake Farms for the Future Board.

Less than 10 percent of state's farmland with the greatest agricultural, economic, cultural, environmental and historical significance is protected, the organization found.

The organization, a coalition of farmers, environmental organizations, developers, state officials and others, is calling for more extensive state spending on existing farmland preservation programs and for county governments to impose strict zoning to keep open spaces from becoming asphalt.

"It is this mix of regulatory and incentive programs that will make it work," said Ralph Grossi, president of the American Farmland Trust.

One area the report cited for continued funding was the state's new Rural Legacy program. As part of the program, the state is spending $2.3 million to preserve about 1,000 acres of open space around Antietam National Battlefield.

More than 4,400 acres of quality farmland has been lost to development since 1980, according to county statistics.

The county currently has about 140,000 acres of agricultural land, of which approximately 10,000 acres are permanently protected from development, Seifarth said.

The county has a goal of having 50,000 acres permanently protected. There is no date for that goal, but Seifarth said it probably will be past 2015.

"We just don't see the preservation being any quicker than that," he said.

The new study characterized the county's agricultural zoning as having "low" protection for farmland because it allows one home to be built on each acre. The report noted that the county has no mandatory "cluster" zoning that protects open space by requiring homes to be grouped onto small sections of large tracts of land.

But Seifarth said the county has preferred tax credits and other incentives aimed at helping farmers rather than the "big stick" measures such as land-use restrictions.

"Our feeling is if they can make a profit on their farm, they are going to tend to stay on their farm and not sell to development," he said.

The study found that of the agricultural land in the county with environmental, cultural and historic features, 10.7 percent is protected in agricultural preservation districts and 2.7 percent is protected by easements.

Of the county's agricultural land that is projected to have a high increase in residential development, 9.3 percent is protected by agricultural preservation districts and 1.8 percent is protected by easements.

"Certainly we'd like to see a lot more," said Washington County Farm Bureau President Gerald Ditto.

Ditto said the state and county should look to "creative" ways to finance increased easement purchases, such as offering farmers savings bonds that mature over many years.

He said tighter zoning should be enacted only if there is sufficient benefit for the farmers, because simply taking away development rights could hurt property values.

Ditto said if agricultural preservation is not comprehensively addressed, and the current "shotgun" approach that has resulted in developments scattered throughout the county continues, there could be even more at stake than a decrease in the number of farms.

He said continuing to place homes far from existing growth areas will put a greater strain on services, including the county's already debt-ridden water and sewer system.

"At some point in time, whether it's 30 years from now or 40 years from now, we're going to have to run sewer lines out to all those developments," he said.

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