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.
He is sticking to his position despite multiple pleas from proponents of the program — including members of some of Harford’s most prominent farming families — at the council’s second and final public hearing on the budget Wednesday evening.
“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,” he said after the public hearing.
The hearing in the County Council chambers in Bel Air lasted about 45 minutes. Perrone spent, roughly, another 45 minutes after the session talking with those who oppose his position.
Street resident Jeffrey Wilson was one of those opponents. Wilson was president of the County Council in 1992 when local 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.
“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, reading from prepared remarks.
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.
Wilson said ag preservation provides multiple benefits, beyond preserving farms in the present day. Those benefits include ensuring the land will remain agricultural for for future generations, preserving economic activity and a source of food production, protecting the environment and preserving Harford’s “historical and rural character,” which adds value to present and future homes.
“Farmland preservation is a smart growth tool, foreclosing development in certain areas in order to make development more viable in other areas,” he said.
Perrone said, when he introduced the amendment during Tuesday’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.
Perrone introduced his amendment the same night the council introduced bills to preserve 2,425 acres at the request of the Glassman administration.
Priorities have not changed
Kristin Kirkwood, executive director of the Harford Land Trust, said 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 Wednesday. “Conversely, we actually see growing support in the county through our 27 years in existence.”
The Harford Land Trust has worked with landowners and donors since its founding in 1991 to protect more than 11,000 acres of farms, wetlands and wooded areas.
Kirkwood said her organization and other nonprofits could not take on ag preservation on their own, should the county funding be reallocated.
She said landowners could not afford to donate their farms to the Land Trust, that they “must rely on just compensation.”
“We complement the county and state programs, but we and other land trusts cannot do this alone,” Kirkwood said.
David Thompson, whose family owns Foxborough Nursery in Street, is a former chairman of the Agricultural Preservation Advisory Board. The five-person board works with county staffers to administer the local ag preservation program.
Thompson was appointed by former County Executive James Harkins, who was in office in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
“In my term on that board, I met so many different families in the farming community who were desperate to continue the heritage of their farms and not have it developed,” he said.
Thompson said the board helped, during his tenure, to preserve more than 10,000 acres and 124 farms. Harford County has preserved more than 30,000 acres, as of Jan. 1, 2018, since the recording of the first agricultural land preservation easement in 1977, according to the county website. More than 50,000 acres total have been preserved in that time through local and state programs.
Robert Tibbs, whose family raises beef cattle on Shadow Springs Farm in Level, said the average Harford County student is “four to five generations removed from knowing anything about farming or farm production.”
He said children learn when they visit a farm that their milk and produce do not originate on the grocery store shelf.
“Mr. Perrone, ag preservation does not cost the county,” Tibbs said. “It makes people want to live here so that their children can see the green grass and breathe good, clean fresh air.”
Other members of farming families that have been in Harford County for generations, such as Aimee O’Neill, Bill Amoss, Kate Dallam, Henry Holloway, Janet Archer, Sandy Magness and David Keyes, expressed their concerns over Perrone’s amendment.
Magness said her family tried to put its Bel Air-area farm into ag preservation but was told they could not because it was in the development envelope — she later said housing developments have been built there.
Her family has since acquired a 212-acre farm on White House Road north of Bel Air that was put into ag preservation in 2000, and they have another 150-acre farm in Street that was already preserved when they purchased it.
“[Ag preservation] needs to stay, it is vital,” she told the council. “I have three grandchildren, they love the farm — they’re looking forward to being that generation to pick up and continue.”
Bel Air resident John Mallamo said he agrees with Perrone, not because he doesn’t like agriculture, but because he thinks preservation should be a permanent line item in the budget. He said the county should find a way to finance young farmers so they can buy land.
“I’d encourage you to look at the budget and really figure out what the priorities are, and I believe that’s what Mr. Perrone is asking for,” he said. “If you’ve got a priority, make it a priority and finance it.”
Perrone said later that he cannot get away from the need to “just deploy our resources differently.” He cited the recent forum at The John Carroll School regarding improving school safety to prevent a mass shooting. Glassman has allocated funds for next year so the Harford County Sheriff’s Office can hire school resource officers for all middle and high schools in their jurisdiction.
Perrone said that money is just for personnel, and officials must also consider capital improvements such as security systems and changing school layouts.
“If this is just some kind of paradigm shift, this is the new world we live in, this is our reality, [if] we have to fund it then we have to fund it,” Perrone said. “I’m in that mindset of, where can we look to take money from, and [ag preservation] is what comes to mind.”
State Del. Susan McComas observed the public hearing. She told The Aegis later about the value of preserving Harford’s rural character and talked about how many parts of the county have been developed, even parts of the Town of Bel Air adjacent to downtown that were once farms and are now covered by houses, businesses and public facilities.
McComas highlighted the parts of the county outside built-up areas that are still rural.
“Take some Sunday drives,” she said. “It’s beautiful.”