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Our successes in preserving land here

June 17, 2006

The current Washington County Board of County Commissioners has been committed to preserving the quality of life our citizens enjoy through a number of rural land preservation programs and efforts aimed at controlling the creep of urban sprawl.

Those efforts have been successful on both fronts. Washington County now has 40,000 acres of land under permanent or temporary easement, due in large part to increases in matching funds allocated by the current commissioners. The county's growth rate over the last five years has been the lowest in the four-state region at 1.5 percent, according to economic development figures.

Between 2002 and 2006, some 5,431 acres of quality farmland were placed under agricultural or preservation easement, bringing the total number of acres preserved in permanent or temporary easement to more than 40,000 in Washington County.

Of these acres, 20,200 are under permanent easement. We are rapidly progressing towards fulfilling the long-term goal of 50,000 acres under permanent easement in Washington County.

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Under the Division of Planning and Community Development, the Agricultural Preservation Program encourages landowners to voluntarily enter into an Agricultural Land Preservation District.

To receive county tax credits, the owner is required to commit the property to agricultural use only, for a period of 10 years. In return for that restriction, the landowner receives protection from nuisance complaints and becomes eligible to sell a Development Rights Easement.

Under the program, the landowner retains ownership of property under easement.

County staff - Land Preservation Planner Eric Seifarth and his assistant Holly Thibault - are leveraging seven different pots of federal and state dollars, which, along with county matching funds ensure that our rolling green hillsides and farmlands will remain largely unchanged from the way they were viewed by our earliest settlers. About $40 million has been utilized by the programs since their inception 17 years ago. Of that total, almost half, some $18.5 million, has been passed through the program between 2002 and 2006.

According to Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Foundation figures, Washington County received the second-largest funding amount for preservation in the state from that organization in 2006.

Obtaining these funds is only a part of the story, as countless thousands of personnel hours are spent in handling reams of paperwork, coordinating between the county and several state and federal agencies, processing applications, ensuring legal and title work is completed properly and conducting compliance inspections for monitoring purposes.

The commissioners' No. 1 goal for 2006 is to "Present recommendations for equity and land preservation in the rural areas by August."

When all of the numbers are crunched and statistics tabulated, I feel the report will be very positive for the people of Washington County.

One other recent statistic may be of interest. In the May 9 commissioners' meeting, I reported that the Quad-State Business Journal showed Washington County's rate of growth at 1.5 percent over the past five years, and ranked that growth lowest in the nearby area.

Jefferson County, W.Va., grew 3.1 percent, Berkeley County grew 4.2 percent, and Loudoun County, Va., grew by 8.5 percent. Loudoun County's population grew from 170,000 to 255,000 in a five-year period.

By comparison, Washington County grew by 10,000 people during that same period.

Controls on sprawl and preservation of our rural heritage are possible, as, I believe, the current Board of County Commissioners has demonstrated.

Gregory I. Snook

President

Board of County Commissioners

Washington County, Md.

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