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Land preservation programs may take hit

October 03, 2003|by LAURA ERNDE

laurae@herald-mail.com

Washington County could lose money when Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich's administration prioritizes the state's generous land preservation programs, officials said Thursday.

Ehrlich called a stop to land purchases until members of his cabinet spend several weeks revamping the state's policies, said spokesman Henry Fawell.

"We are in a very tight fiscal situation and so there needs to be a reassessment of how the state purchases and acquires land and whether that acquisition is affordable," Fawell said.

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Ehrlich said land purchases that will help the Chesapeake Bay should get first priority.

Lane Preservation Administrator Eric Seifarth said land near the Potomac River and its tributaries should be protected because those waters eventually run into the bay.

"I hope those who are out away from the bay get included," Seifarth said.

The action throws into limbo the preservation of two properties totaling 260 acres that were nearing approval under the state's Rural Legacy program, he said.

Through Rural Legacy, the state has set aside $7 million for land preservation in Washington County, he said.

About $6.3 million of that has been spent.

Most recently, the 100-acre Sebold farm in Keedysville was preserved with a $242,000 grant approved Sept. 18.

Hearing rumors that the state may be scaling back its land preservation efforts, Seifarth said he and other county staff members tried to fast-track the properties in the program.

Jim Laird, president of Citizens for the Protection of Washington County, said he would like to see the state fully fund its land preservation programs.

"I'd like to see them save the bay ... I think saving the farmland's probably equally important," he said.

Del. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington, defended the administration's review.

It's worthwhile to make sure the state is spending money where it can get the "biggest bang for the buck," he said.

"Clearly the governor is committed to being fair with all jurisdictions. But clearly he's going to make some tough decisions," Shank said.

The possible cuts underscore the need for Washington County to put more money into its own land preservation program, Shank said.

"It's a lot cheaper and more economical to invest in farmland preservation than new schools, new roads, new water and sewer lines and the other effects of growth," he said.

Earlier this year, the Washington County delegation to the General Assembly approved a real estate sales tax and a building excise tax to raise money for school construction. As part of the legislation, the county is to set aside $400,000 a year toward land preservation.

The new policy will be formulated by the state Department of Natural Resources, Department of Agriculture, Department of the Environment, Planning Department and Department of General Services.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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