Now more than ever [Editorial]

Harford County’s ag preservation effort, a combination of county and state programs, has long been one of the best in the nation.

Tens of millions of dollars have been spent since 1977 to save more than 50,000 acres from development.

We extol the virtues of the county’s ag preservation because there’s a move afoot to move money in the budget from ag preservation to other expenses, and we join the voices opposed to the proposal that would kill ag preservation.

As we reported last week, Harford County Councilman Mike Perrone plans to move ahead with his amendment to the county’s fiscal 2019 budget that would effectively defund the county’s agricultural preservation program and eventually shift the money to what he considers greater needs such as school safety, EMS and employee salaries.

County preservation programs are funded by a .5 percent tax on real estate transfers and deed instruments such as refinancing of home mortgages. There’s a statewide transfer tax of .5 percent as well that is used for land preservation and the Program Open Space fund for parkland acquisitions. Gov. Larry Hogan’s administration last year touted its commitment to land preservation, announcing the state Board of Public Works had approved another round of Rural Legacy Program grants totaling $23 million, including $1 million to preserve properties in the Deer Creek Valley.

Perrone doesn’t think spending money to buy development rights that save land from being developed is important.

“The need to focus on other areas, to me it’s so dire that I don’t see how I can’t; that’s where my conscience has taken me,” Perrone said last week in defense of his proposal.

Street resident Jeffrey Wilson, who was president of the County Council in 1992 when voters approved a 1 percent real estate transfer tax, with half of the revenue going to ag preservation and the other half going to school capital projects or debt service on those capital projects, is one of those opposed.

“The county farmland preservation program was an essential part of our strategic approach to ensuring the county offered appropriate facilities and services to all our citizens, as well as securing the county’s financial future,” Wilson said last week.

The county uses the revenue dedicated to ag preservation — Harford County Executive Barry Glassman has allocated more than $24 million for that purpose next fiscal year — to purchase development rights on eligible farms.

The land must be used for agricultural purposes in perpetuity, a requirement to which the grantor and any future property owners must adhere.

“Farmland preservation is a smart growth tool, foreclosing development in certain areas in order to make development more viable in other areas,” Wilson said.

Perrone said, when he introduced the amendment during last week’s council meeting, that the needs of Harford County have changed in the past 25 years, and the money dedicated for ag preservation should be shifted into other areas such as school safety. He suggested farmland could still be preserved through the zoning code and shifting more growth within the county’s development envelope.

Kristin Kirkwood, executive director of the Harford Land Trust, which is another land preservation effort, said that group’s members “firmly disagree that priorities are different today than they were 25 years ago.”

“There was no expiration date on the referendum when it was put in place, and we see no evidence that the priorities of residents have changed,” she said last week. “Conversely, we actually see growing support in the county through our 27 years in existence.”

We agree with Kirkwood. While Perrone may be right about Harford County’s needs changing over the past 25 years, when it comes to land preservation what’s changed is there’s a greater need and support for it than ever.

Our previously stated position in prior editorials is worth repeating: “We’re all for land preservation programs and for paying people for their development rights, so long as their property is productively used for farming or is in critical watersheds, like Deer Creek, or in woodlands or other areas of important plant and wildlife habitat.”

Our view has not changed, nor should it any time soon.

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