State program shields farm land from development

October 21, 1998|By BRENDAN KIRBY

Thousands of acres of land near Antietam National Battlefield will be protected from development under a state program that will provide funds to keep the land from being developed, officials said Tuesday.

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The Washington County Commissioners conditionally approved an agreement with the state of Maryland under which the county would get $1.8 million to buy development rights from property owners in a 14,000-acre section near the Civil War battlefield.

In exchange for agreeing to protect their land from development and to other restrictions, property owners will receive up to $2,500 per acre, said Eric Seifarth, the county's farmland preservation administrator.

The commissioners voted 4-0, with Commissioners President Gregory I. Snook absent, to approve the agreement, provided the county's insurance company agrees to a provision that would protect the state from potential lawsuits.


Assistant County Attorney Beth Evans said she does not foresee problems with the agreement.

Rural Legacy is the newest of several state programs designed to protect farmland by offering farmers a variety of incentives to prevent development.

Unlike other preservation efforts, Rural Legacy takes environmental and historical considerations into account. Applicants will be accepted for inclusion in the program based on a complex formula that awards points for various criteria.

For instance, a working farm gets more points than open land, Seifarth said.

Property owners also have the option of agreeing to other restrictions. They may, for example, create stream buffers, or take action to protect endangered species. The more restrictions they agree to, the more money they can receive.

Commissioner John S. Shank voted for the agreement but questioned the approach. He said land owners who have sold development rights in other programs have received less money.

"Farms in the urban growth area are a lot greater and a lot more important than land 10 or 15 miles outside of town," he said.

In an interview after the meeting, Seifarth said he hopes to begin selecting Rural Legacy properties by the middle of next year. The county has 18 months from the time the agreement is signed to use the $1.8 million in state money, but he said the county could get an extension if necessary.

The county's Rural Legacy zone is centered around the battlefield and extends to Red Hill Road south of Keedysville.

About 5,000 of the 14,000 acres already are protected by other preservation programs, Seifarth said.

Initially, Washington County officials had hoped to designate a 37,000-acre area that would have extended to the Frederick County border.

But Seifarth said state officials moved the boundary to Red Hill Road because the county's zoning was not restrictive enough and not enough land was protected by other preservation programs in the eastern portion.

He said state officials feared development could spring up around land that was added to the Rural Legacy program.

"We pushed them hard to reconsider and they just wouldn't do it," Seifarth said.

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