Preservation with more information [Editorial]

The Aegis

Since 1977, more than 50,000 acres of agricultural property, woodlands and environmentally sensitive areas have been preserved in Harford County.

This information comes from the county’s website. More acreage is coming, according to recent articles we published within the last six weeks from both the Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Foundation’s program and the Rural Legacy Program managed by the state Department of Natural Resources.

While supportive of all these programs, we’ve also beaten the drum on more than one occasion for more transparency about them. In most instances, such as the county’s own ag preservation program, which has kept more than 30,000 acres and counting away from developers, property owners are being paid with money provided directly by taxpayers.

County preservation programs, for instance, are funded by a .5 percent tax on real estate transfer and deed instruments such as refinancing of home mortgages. There’s a statewide transfer tax of .5 percent, as well, which is used for land preservation and the Program Open Space fund for parkland acquisitions. Gov. Larry Hogan’s administration last week touted its commitment to land preservation in 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.

“Our administration is committed to land conservation, preservation and recreation, and I am very pleased to announce these new Rural Legacy Program grants, which will preserve and protect our most pristine agricultural, environmental and historical areas,” Hogan said in a statement. “When I became governor, I promised to restore funding for our world-renowned land programs, like Program Open Space, and we have done just that. We are following through on our commitment...”

“Established in 1997, the Rural Legacy Program is designed to preserve large tracts of productive and valuable agricultural and forested lands that contain exceptional features,” according to a Hogan news release. “The program acts through local government or private land trust sponsors to purchase conservation easements from willing property owners in 31 locally-designated rural areas located in every county.”

To date, the Rural Legacy Program has permanently protected 91,398 acres. Included in that figure is at least 3,300 acres in Harford County, according to the county’s website.

Hogan’s administration also noted the governor “championed” a 2016 law that increased funding for critical land conservation, preservation and recreation programs, including the Rural Legacy Program. As a result, between Fiscal Year 2016 and 2017, the program saw a boost of 75 percent with an additional 30 percent increase from Fiscal Year 2017 to 2018, its news release states.

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.

But let’s also keep in mind that most of these preserved properties remain in private hands and are not accessible to the general public. The counties and the state should keep an easily accessible, online data base that will show Maryland taxpayers what their money pouring into these programs has been used for and who has been paid what for these easements and other preservation instruments.

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