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Farmland program saves open space, costs taxpayers

September 28, 1998

Barr OrchardsBy BRENDAN KIRBY / Staff Writer

photo: RIC DUGAN / staff photographer




With the 1990s fast approaching, Washington County officials looked nervously at shrinking farmland and an anticipated development boom and hit upon an idea to save local farms.

County officials decided they would offer property tax breaks to farmers who would agree to preserve their farmland and not sell to developers for 10 years.

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Implemented in fiscal year 1990, the program has placed 24,500 acres in 10-year preservation districts and has cost the county nearly $1.5 million in lost property taxes.

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The annual cost has risen steadily, approaching $250,000 as more farmers have signed on. In fiscal year 1998, the county lost $217,562 in foregone taxes, according to figures provided by the Washington County Planning Commission.

"I'd say it's been working pretty well," said Washington County Commissioners President Gregory I. Snook. "I think we are one of the more aggressive counties with this kind of approach."

The preservation districts are an expansion of a state-run program that works on five-year agreements, said Eric Seifarth, the county's farmland preservation administrator.

Under the county's program, a farm must have at least 100 acres or be next to an existing preservation district. More than half of the soil must be of high quality and the land must be outside the Hagerstown growth area, Seifarth said.

In exchange for preserving the land, farmers pay no county property taxes on their land or farm buildings and get a discount on taxes they pay on their home, Seifarth said.

David C. Ritondo, who owns 140 acres of forest land in the southern part of the county, said he applied for the program in 1990 because he was intrigued by the tax breaks.

"We also wanted to preserve the place," he said. "We'll just keep going. As long as they let us stay in, we'll stay in."

The first major test of the program comes in two years, when Ritondo and the rest of the land owners who signed up during the first year will come to the end of their 10-year commitments. Then they will have the opportunity to renew the program for another five years.

Seifarth said county officials believe most will opt to renew the contract.

Several farmers said the preservation program makes it a little easier to make a profit under conditions that often are not as friendly.

"I think the tax break the county extends is quite beneficial," said I. Bruce Barr, who owns an orchard in Leitersburg. "It makes the whole operation a little more viable."

But the program is far from a panacea, farmers said.

Charles A. Wiles, who owns a 200-acre dairy farm south of Williamsport, said his taxes now are as high as they were when he entered the program, even with the discount.

"It shows a genuine effort on the part of the County Commissioners. They're trying," he said. "It's a token gesture, but a very nice one. It's not a cure-all. It's not going to save the dairy farmer, or any other farmer. But it's nice."

Seifarth said county officials, too, are under no illusion about what the program can accomplish.

"Farmers tell us that you can't just preserve the land. You have to protect farming as a way of life," Seifarth said. "For the guys who would like to stay in farming, this provides a little more incentive and shows support from the county."

The factors driving development, from depressed prices for agricultural products to the sheer wealth that development can bring, are often beyond the control of county planners.

Seifarth said state officials prefer to preserve farmland by purchasing permanent easements from farmers. But those purchases are funded by a transfer tax developers must pay when they buy farmland.

That means it takes the loss of several farms to preserve one, Seifarth said. It also means that there is much less money available to buy easements than there are farmers who would like to sell them, he said.

"It all comes back to tax money," he said.

Wiles said the preservation districts offer a good way to reward successful farmers. But he doubted the program would persuade people who want to get out of the business to stay.

"If you think you're going to sell out or not going to make it, you better stay clear of this," he said.

Others expressed concern that the county should focus more on protecting the best farmland.

County Commissioner John S. Shank, whose Funkstown-area farm is in the program, said he advocates strengthening the requirements so only the best farms are eligible.

"Our program is more of a land preservation program. It's not really geared to preserving top-quality soil," he said.

Still, advocates said the program benefits more than simply the farmers who get the tax breaks.

"You have to have a core amount of acres. If you don't, you lose the businesses that farmers depend on," Barr said. "That further weakens the industry."

Wiles said the American farmer has been preserving agricultural land for 250 years.

"Now it's time for someone else to start doing it," he said.

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