Land rush threatens quality of life

November 18, 2000

Land rush threatens quality of life

By ANDREW SCHOTZ / Staff Writer

The farmer's struggle affects us all. The grain he grows and the cows he milks will disappear if his farm fails.

But conservationists say the community is more likely to notice, and to object, once agricultural land is sold and becomes a subdivision.

"What happens when a farmer goes out of business?" asked Don Schwartz, a University of Maryland Extension Service agent for Washington County. "We build more houses."

Farmers like Gerald Ditto of Clear Spring say they'd rather keep their land pastoral - as long as they can make a living.


"The environmentalists say it's a quality-of-life issue," he said. "For me, it's a business."

The threat of losing farmland to development is a driving force behind highly regarded land preservation programs in Maryland and Pennsylvania. The money they provide can help farms survive.

West Virginia launched a farmland protection program this year, but it lacks funding.

Studies show that new houses cost more in emergency services, schools and utilities than they contribute in taxes. Land preservation programs are considered essential for keeping farms running and for battling suburban sprawl, which chases some citizens to the countryside - sometimes in large numbers.

"You end up with the same ugly crowded crap that you were trying to escape," said Daniel Rosen, a planner with the Maryland Department of Planning.

Land preservation

"Since the 17th century, agriculture has shaped the spirit and the landscape of Maryland," American Farmland Trust, a Washington-based nonprofit organization, wrote at its Web site. "Its open fields, scenic vistas and way of life has helped define the character of the area. These attributes, so synonymous with rural life, are unique to farming and cannot be replicated."

Easement purchases - in which farmers are paid public money to not develop their land - and agricultural tax breaks are ways government helps farmers resist the temptation of development dollars.

"The mainstay is the Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Program," said Eric Seifarth, Washington County's farmland preservation administrator.

Under the program, farmers and forest owners who form agricultural districts and agree not to develop their land for five years are protected from nuisance complaints. If they keep the land open for 10 years, they can get up to $50,000 in tax credits.

The program also makes them eligible to sell easements to the state to ensure land remains as undeveloped open space indefinitely.

A 1999 Washington County Planning Commission report said there were 26,334 acres of farmland in the county's 194 agricultural districts. Some 6,348 acres were protected by a total of 34 open-space easements.

Rural Legacy

The Rural Legacy conservation program is part of Maryland's Smart Growth initiative. In its four years, the program has contributed $82 million toward preserving about 38,481 acres, Rosen said.

Washington County has received $4.5 million in preservation money. Seifarth said the state requires the county to focus on 37,000 acres from the Potomac River to South Mountain, with the western half first.

"We have been limited to the area west of Red Hill Road," he said. "We must finish up the 16,000 acres. Then we can go toward South Mountain."

From Sept. 28 to Oct. 4, Washington County obtained three conservation easements in Sharpsburg, a total of 632 acres, deeds show.

The Limekiln Road Partnership, made up of Terry E. Karn and Matthew T. Strong, received $560,000 for 315.6 acres at 3217 Limekiln Road, a dairy farm.

William H. Poffenberger, Mary Margaret Poffenberger and Scot A. Poffenberger received $345,560.76 for 185.38 acres at 6000 Mondell Road, a cattle farm.

Carl E. Heron and Melanie F. Heron received $204,000 for 131.41 acres at 3460 Harpers Ferry Road, a horse farm.

Seifarth said easements usually cost about $2,000 an acre. For those three parcels, the price varied from $1,550 to $1,860 per acre.

About 80 potential purchases will be considered over the next 15 years, Seifarth said.

Slowing the decline

In the last two decades, about 21,000 acres of Washington County agricultural land have been developed, according to a county planning report. But more than three-quarters of the land was in designated "growth areas," where development is planned. They are mostly in and around Hagerstown, but also include areas of Smithsburg, Boonsboro, Williamsport and Hancock, according to a county planning map.

Seifarth said the county lost about 300 acres of agricultural land each year outside the growth areas in the 1980s. Since then, the rate has slowed to about 150 acres a year.

"So far, we have been more than keeping up with the land that has been lost," he said.

American Farmland Trust says the situation is more serious statewide.

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