Officials get $1 million to preserve farmland

October 22, 1998|By BRENDAN KIRBY

Washington County officials will have about $1 million next year to preserve farms from development.

The Washington County Commissioners agreed Tuesday to pledge $350,000 to the Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Program. That money will make up 40 percent of the county's funds. The state will provide 60 percent.

That total, combined with about $77,000 in new federal grants, will provide about $1 million to purchase "easements" in the next 18 months.

"This should be our best year since I've been here," said Eric Seifarth, the county's farmland preservation administrator.

Under the program, farmers are paid to sign agreements that will prevent their land from being sold to developers.

Seifarth estimated that the money will be enough to preserve about 600 acres, or between three and six farms, depending on their size.


The county sent a list of 10 farms to the state in June. State officials will select the farms.

The development value is assessed and then farmers can discount the worth. For example, if the development value is assessed at $2,000 an acre, the farmer can agree to $1,500 per acre.

The state gives preference to property owners who offer the greatest discounts.

The land also must meet certain criteria. For instance, at least 50 percent of the soil must be on of the top three grades.

County Commissioner John S. Shank criticized the program, saying it does not protect the best farmland.

"Actually, it's open space preservation," he said. "If you're going to call it ag land preservation, lets make it that."

Shank said the soil-quality requirements should be stricter, calling for at least 70 percent or 75 percent top-grade soil. He also said preference should be given to the best land, not to farmers who offer the greatest discounts.

Seifarth said he is hopeful the General Assembly will pass legislation next year to give counties more freedom to set their own rules. The bill died at the end of the session this year, he said.

If it passes, Seifarth said Washington County will be able to rank applicants based on the quality of the land.

By committing $350,000 to the program, county officials are betting they will raise at least $105,000 through a 5 percent tax that developers pay when they convert farmland.

The fund currently contains $245,000.

Seifarth said the tax has generated $150,000 in the last five years. He said the $105,000 estimate is conservative.

"Realistically, we should get that much and more," he said.

If the tax does not generate enough revenue by March 2000, however, the county will owe 17 percent interest on the unpaid balance.

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