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State pays to protect land from development

June 06, 2002|by LAURA ERNDE

laurae@herald-mail.com

Charles and Alliene Downs' bucolic farmland north of Clear Spring has been in her family since 1858 and a contract approved Wednesday will insure that it is permanently protected from development.

The couple has agreed to sell the development rights to 129 acres of their land north of Clear Spring, which is farmed by a tenant crop farmer.

"I feel that somebody has to make a stand and go against all this random development," Charles Downs said.

Downs owns one of five Washington County farms accepted Wednesday into the state's Agricultural Land Preservation program. Nearly 800 acres in the county will be protected at a cost of $1.8 million.

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Statewide, the Maryland Board of Public Works approved the preservation of 5,000 acres of farmland at a cost of about $10.6 million.

All of the contracts still have to go to real estate settlement.

Landowners in the program said they want to make sure their scenic farms are forever protected from the onslaught of new housing developments.

"We've seen a lot of farmland just being swallowed up by rooftops. We hate to see agriculture go by the wayside," Christine Worthington said.

Worthington and her husband, Lee, bought their Ringgold-area dairy farm in 1973.

A few miles away, crop farmer Richard Newcomer has undergone some difficult times due to drought. The one-time payment will help financially in addition to preserving the land.

The program has a side benefit for Charles and Martha J. Wiles. It devalues their Williamsport-area dairy farm, making it affordable for their son, Greg Wiles, to take it over.

"I'm going to become my son's hired man," said Charles Wiles, 59.

Downs, 81, said developers have approached him about selling his land, which includes two miles of prime real estate fronting both Broadfording and Mercersburg roads north of Clear Spring.

But Downs said they don't ask twice. He makes it very clear how he feels about the issue.

While neither he nor his children have any interest in developing the land, without the easement future generations would be free to build.

The transactions approved Wednesday represent about one-third of the farms the state hopes to put into preservation this year, said Jim Conrad, administrator of the state program.

Because of budget cuts, fewer farms will be preserved in the coming two years, he said.

Agriculture easements are purchased with a combination of state and county tax money.

The Washington County Commissioners have committed $300,000 to the program this year, county Farmland Preservation Coordinator Eric Seifarth said.

In the last two years, about $3.5 million has been spent in the county on farmland preservation, he said. Another $5 million has been spent through the Rural Legacy program, which protects land of historical or environmental significance.

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