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County battles to preserve farmland

May 05, 2007|By PEPPER BALLARD

The view from the milking parlor at Valentia Farm does not mirror the view of the dairy farm itself: Vast grass fields speckled with lazy cattle are offset by three silos, a red barn, a modest house and a truck that kicks up dust as it rolls slowly past the tidy supply buildings.

There was a day when farmer Earl Grove could look out on a similar landscape as he prepared to milk his cattle. But for more than 10 years, the view from his milking parlor has been Cross Creek Development, a cluster of nearly 200 two-story houses with siding and decks.

The farm and the development are separated by about 30 feet, divided by a split-rail fence and the former Poffenberger Road - now a dead-end road named after Grove's farm.

"We're at the point where (development's) eventually going to happen here whether we want it to or not," said the 60-year-old Grove, whose farm has been in his family for three generations.

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Grove said he doesn't expect his farm will end up in the hands of his three grown children. His two daughters hold doctorates in other fields and his son is pursuing his doctorate in physical chemistry.

"I'm holding my own," Grove said. "I love what I'm doing and I'm going to do it as long as I can and yes, I'm stubborn."

Grove's 200-acre farm, which is surrounded by development, is in the county's urban growth area, a border that zigzags around Hagerstown's city limits, touching the Mason-Dixon line to its north, the Potomac River in Williamsport to its west, the prisons to its south and Chewsville to its east.

The county urban growth area and the growth areas surrounding each of the county's incorporated towns are areas in which development is encouraged, largely because those areas rely on county infrastructure, but partly because that's where the towns and city deemed growth most appropriate, said Mike Thompson, county director of planning and community development.

In the past five years, fewer than 1,000 acres of farmland was developed in Washington County, working out to be "less than average development than other counties in the state," said Eric Seifarth, the county's land preservation administrator.

In that same time frame, the county preserved 5,400 acres of farmland.

Since 1978, the county has preserved 21,000 acres under land preservation programs through which farmers sell or donate the development rights to their land to various government agencies or land trusts so that it will remain in agriculture in perpetuity.

The county set a goal of preserving 50,000 acres of farmland by 2020, but that is unattainable, Seifarth said.

"It would be well over $1 billion to buy those easements and we just don't have the money," he said. "... It'll just take us a little longer."

There are 100,000 acres of farmland in the county that still can be preserved, he said.

Too valuable to farm

Washington County is second in the state behind Frederick County for dairy production, but most of the milk produced here is sold through a cooperative to the Washington, D.C., area, said Jeff Semler, extension educator with the Maryland Cooperative Extension.

At least half of the corn grown here is fed to the county's dairy cows.

Farmers here are not raking in a lot of money to boost the county's economy, Semler said, but their manicured pastures and fields draw the attention of metropolitan families seeking to escape their fast-paced lives.

When looking at economic development, most areas look at job retention and job creation as top priorities, but, Semler said, agriculture "doesn't fit into that paradigm."

"You keep a farm, you keep a family. A farm's selling point to the Economic Development Commission is that farm, that view out the back window is the reason the CEO from 'Widgets Incorporated' wanted to move here ... and the I-70, I-81 corridor," he said.

"If every farmer in Washington County disappeared, would we starve to death? No. But these are intrinsic ... values that you can't put a price on," Semler said.

A Washington County farmer's land, however, carries a big price tag.

"The land, especially in the mid-Atlantic, has become so valuable that it's too valuable to farm," Semler said.

Nearby Loudoun County, Va., is the third-fastest growing county in the United States, but it once was the No. 1 dairy farming county in Virginia, Semler said.

"Now, there's maybe three dairy farms," he said.

Seifarth, the county land preservation administrator, said he doesn't envision Washington County becoming as developed as Frederick County, Md., in the next 10 years.

Seifarth said farmers can participate in land preservation programs. A proposed transferable development rights program would enable farmers to sell their development rights to a developer in a growth area, a move that would keep the farmer's land in agriculture, stripping them of development rights.

The developer in the growth area then could build at a higher density, Seifarth said.

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