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Aleshire: Changes to Washington County preservation ranking system harm isolated farms

August 20, 2008|By JOSHUA BOWMAN

WASHINGTON COUNTY -- Farms that are adjacent to state and federal parks, and some private wooded properties would be more likely to qualify for preservation funding under changes to a ranking system approved by the Washington County Commissioners on Tuesday.

The County Commissioners voted 4-1 in favor of the changes, which still must go through a public hearing next week and final vote by the commissioners before taking effect.

The changes to the Maryland Agricultural Land and Preservation Program (MALPP) application ranking system would allow more farms to compete for state easements.

The current ranking system heavily favors farms that are adjacent to existing easement-protected farms.

Commissioner Kristin B. Aleshire, who voted against the changes, said they did not do enough to help isolated farms qualify for state easements, which pay farmers who agree to continue farming their land.

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"Isolated farms still lose too much," Aleshire said.

For the past several months, the commissioners and the Washington County Agricultural Board have batted back and forth proposed changes to the ranking system.

At issue is how much weight should be given to farms that are contiguous to other parcels of protected farmland.

The agricultural board argues that farms in close proximity to existing easements should be favored, which helps create large blocks of farmland in the county.

"Farmers believe that a farm that gets ringed with development will not survive," said Eric Seifarth, Washington County's rural preservation administrator.

Aleshire has argued, however, that the weight given to contiguous farms is too heavy, ensuring that only those farms will compete for the limited amount of easement funding that comes from the state each year.

Of the 20 or so farms that make the list each year, less than half normally receive funding, Seifarth said.

The changes approved Tuesday represent a compromise: Farms would get points for being close to parkland or private protected properties, but only half as many points as are given to those that are close to other protected farms.

While the agricultural board said it did not agree with the changes, it is willing to accept them "to break the logjam" and finalize the ranking system, Seifarth said.

"I'm in favor of allowing (the changes). A lot of our lands in this county are preserved with (Program) Open Space money," said Commissioner William J. Wivell, referring to a state program that funds parks and other recreational areas.

Under the changes to the ranking system, farms would get points for being close to those properties, federal or state parks, and private land protected by easements.

The commissioners likely will hold a public hearing on the changes next Tuesday and could vote on the property rankings for fiscal 2009 after the hearing.

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