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As Harford prepares to preserve 2,400 acres of farmland, council member attempts to discontinue program

Contact Reporterebutler@theaegis.com

The same night bills were introduced to preserve 2,400 acres of Harford County farmland, one County Council member introduced a budget amendment that would essentially eliminate funding for the county’s preservation program altogether.

Twenty-two bills were introduced at Tuesday’s Harford County Council meeting to eliminate 211 development rights on 2,425 acres and put those properties into an agricultural preservation program at a cost of $14.9 million, funded through a portion of the real estate transfer tax.

But Councilman Mike Perrone introduced an amendment to the proposed FY2019 budget, which the council is also considering, that would defund the agricultural preservation program entirely by impounding more than $24 million in anticipated transfer tax revenue.

Perrone said he doesn’t want to stop preserving farmland and controlling development, but believes it can be done through the county’s zoning code, with the money used for the ag preservation program being better spent elsewhere.

His amendment was denounced by several council members, as well as by County Executive Barry Glassman, a long-time supporter of the ag preservation program, which the county has funded for nearly 26 years through legislation passed when Glassman was a council member.

Perrone, who is in his first term on the council representing the Edgewood and Joppatowne areas, is running against Glassman in next month’s primary for the Republican nomination for county executive.

“Twenty-five or so years ago when ths program started, I think our priorities as a county were different,” Perrone said after he introduced his amendment. “Compare today with 25 years ago, matters of school safety, costs of maintenance, directly or indirectly, of an EMS system, health insurance costs, the competitiveness of salaries of our county employees and various agencies — all those issues weren’t on the table 25 years ago the way they are today and I think we need to revisit our priorities.”

In a phone interview Wednesday, Glassman said Perrone lacks understanding of the “entire history of land preservation in our county” and is “clearly a misguided attempt at getting some attention.”

“It’s probably one of the worst amendments I’ve seen in 30 years, and I trust it will be voted down appropriately,” Glassman said.

In introducing his budget last month, Glassman said he would be ramping up funding for the agricultural preservation program, in particular to protect current open farmland along Routes 136 and 543 in the Churchville and Creswell areas from future development.

Over the past 40 years, some 50,000 acres of agricultural land has been preserved in Harford through federal, state and county programs, with about 30,000 acres preserved through the county’s purchase of easements, or development rights, using a .5 percent tax on property sales and other real estate related transactions. (Another .5 percent of the transfer tax is dedicated toward school-related construction and building improvements.)

Caught by surprise

Perrone’s amendment proposal caught a number of his council colleagues by surprise who quickly criticized it.

“I was shocked to see that a fellow council member would introduce an amendment that would threaten every Harford County residents’ agricultural heritage, abandon land preservation and threaten the very fiber of this county,” Councilman Patrick Vincenti said in a statement issued immediately after Tuesday’s meeting.

Vincenti, a Republican who is running for County Council president, represents District E, to which much of the latest preservation initiative is directed.

Councilman Chad Shrodes, whose northern district includes much of Harford’s 51,000 preserved acreage, said farmers aren’t becoming “wealthy” through agricultural preservation.

“The amendment offered last night is misguided and would make it impossible for the county to preserve more farmland next year,” Shrodes wrote in an email to The Aegis.

“Although I am confident that this amendment will be defeated due to lack of support from the other council members, I am dismayed that this amendment was offered in the first place,” he wrote.

Perrone’s amendment

Perrone’s amendment would authorize pulling from next year’s budget more than $24 million earmarked for the agricultural preservation program. The money, which in addition to funding new easement purchases and is also used to repay bonds sold against prior purchases, would remain in the special revenue fund, he said, until existing laws restricting its use for agricultural preservation can be changed.

“The way it’s set up, the transfer tax revenue that funds agricultural preservation can’t be used for any other purpose,” Perrone said. “My hope is that a future county executive might see fit to work with the state delegation and basically revisit the issue with the hope that the money could be reassigned elsewhere.”

This would just be a first step, he said, if the county at any point wants to consider redirecting the transfer tax revenues.

“We’re just holding on to what we have, so down the road, we’ve got the money sitting in a fund to be shifted elsewhere,” he said.

The amendment would not allow rampant development in the county, Perrone said, because future development would still be controlled through the zoning code.

Perrone said he would like to see more development steered to areas where infrastructure already exists, such as the Route 40 area and other parts of the development envelope, the county’s designated growth area.

Some of those areas could be redeveloped, Perrone said, but he said that could be more costly. And the county is using taxpayer dollars to buy development rights from property owners, he said.

“In an era when there are so many spending priorities, the use of $22 million to buy out development rights of farmers is a gross misuse of public dollars,” Perrone said.

Were the county to stop funding the program, preservation wouldn’t stop, he said.

“If the county steps out, it’s not like it’s leaving a void,” Perrone said. “If you value preservation, you can support an organization like the Harford Land Trust.”

‘Largest total acreage’

The 2,425 acres Glassman has proposed this year is the largest total acreage proposed for preservation at one time in Harford County in 10 years, the county executive said.

Much of that is because of the recovering real estate market, Glassman said. When the market was down, the county wasn’t able to preserve as much, because real estate transactions slumped; the county couldn’t spend more than it took in.

The more homes and other properties that are bought and sold, the more revenue that’s generated from the transfer tax.

Of the more than 2,400 acres Glassman wants to preserve in the coming year, nearly 40 percent (more than 1,000 acres) is in the Churchville/Creswell area, a dedicated incentive area created in 2017 as a “firewall” against future expansion of the development envelope.

“Agricultural preservation is a big part of Harford County’s ag history and preserving the very thing a lot of folks want to come to the county for,” Glassman said.

The purchase of development rights in the program permanently extinguishes all pre-existing development potential of a particular property and is not used to offset development elsewhere in the county. Other than very limited rights reserved to the original grantor and their immediate family, no further residential subdivision is allowed, and the land is limited in perpetuity to agricultural use as defined in the zoning code, according to the county.

The grantor of the easement and all subsequent owners of the property retain full fee simple ownership of the land, but are bound by the terms of the deed of easement, which is recorded in county land records.

Properties are selected for the program by the Harford County Agricultural Land Preservation Advisory Board, based on a legislatively established ranking that considers factors such as soil quality, acreage, development rights and location.

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