Few government programs are as highly regarded across the political spectrum as land preservation spending, and there are good reasons why.
It's something of a paradox of the American way that a lot of people want to live in the country, or at least the suburbs near the country, but we love the idea of the country being as undeveloped as possible. Go figure.
Land developers are happy to accommodate by turning undeveloped land into suburban neighborhoods, but with each new neighborhood, the country gets farther away from the older suburbs. Where does it end? Well, the housing bust of 2008 showed that expecting people who work in New York to commute from northeastern Pennsylvania was too far, and the housing market in that part of the Keystone state took a substantial hit. In that case, the market was the limiting factor.
In Harford County, the line between suburban and rural is at its most distinct along the southern edge of the Deer Creek Valley. This isn't by chance. The valley is the location of two substantial state parks Rocks and Susquehanna as well as a healthy community of viable agricultural operations.
While market forces initially resulted in the parts of Harford County closer to I-95 being developed for commuter housing, in recent decades there has been a concerted effort to preserve what is known as the Deer Creek Rural Legacy Area. It is a territory of more than 66,000 acres from the Susquehanna River in the east to Baltimore County's Manor Rural Legacy Area in the west.
One of the tools used to preserve land in the Deer Creek Valley is a simple concept that has been in use for decades: the purchase of development easements from owners of private property. In exchange for a fee, property owners sell their land's development rights to the state or county. They retain their land, and are able to use it pretty much as they had been, but they, and all subsequent owners, are precluded through deed restrictions, from developing the land. Thus, it is retained as private property on the tax rolls, even as the popular public interest of limiting suburban sprawl is accomplished.
It was announced earlier this week that the Maryland Department of Natural Resources has allocated $1.5 million to Harford County to be used for the purpose of buying preservation easements from land owners in the Deer Creek Rural Legacy Area, a substantial chunk of the state's latest allocation for land preservation. The money comes from a state dedicated fund that draws income from a real estate transfer tax; allocations from that fund are made periodically. As a result, there's a bit of ironic justice insofar as a thriving real estate market helps to pay for the preservation of land.
Unlike a fair amount of high profile government spending – the kind generally associated with signs that read "Your tax dollars at work" – agricultural preservation spending results in nothing happening. A cynical take on the program is that it works so well because it involves the government spending money that results in nothing happening.
From a practical standpoint, however, protecting land from development is something – something important – even as it results in nothing being done to land in prime locations. Anyone who doesn't think so, need only take a short drive on a back road in the Deer Creek Valley to see that nothing happening has an awful lot of value.