Harford plans 'signing bonus' to spark land preservation

In an effort to entice more farmland owners to participate in the county-funded preservation program, Harford County's administration wants to offer a special incentive payment aimed at farms in areas under development pressure.

Described by Director of Administration Billy Boniface as a "signing bonus," the one-time cash payment would be offered to landowners who agree to sell their development rights to the county.

The properties must be located within two designated areas: along Route 23 between Forest Hill and Jarrettsville and along Route 136 between Churchville and Creswell.

Increasing the acreage preserved in those areas would lessen the likelihood of more suburban sprawl, which is a frequent complaint of many county residents.

"It's a concept we think is creative and can capture farms on the edge," Boniface said.

Legislation to create the incentive program, Bill 17-005 sponsored by County Executive Barry Glassman, was introduced to the County Council last month and was presented at a public hearing Tuesday evening by Boniface, Planning Director Bradley Killian and County Treasurer Robert Sandlass Jr.

An immediate concern expressed by several council members was that the legislation contained no dollar amounts for the proposed incentive.

Boniface said they plan to offer $1,000 an acre to applicable properties, which could change in the future. Regardless, he added, the council will have the final say on all such payments, as it does on every agricultural preservation transaction involving county government.

50,000 acres preserved

Harford County has about 50,000 acres in one of several preservation options available to landowners through the county, the State of Maryland and the federal government. Of the total, 30,000 acres is preserved directly through the county's program, according to the county government website.

The majority of the preserved farms are in the county's northern tier, which Killian and Boniface said has been viewed as a priority preservation belt.

The amount of land already preserved has met the original goal of the county's 25-year-old program and amounts to more that half of Harford's 90,000 acres considered in active farming or forests, Killian said, explaining the maturity of the county's program is one factor making it difficult to attract new participants.

The county program and the Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Foundation program pay landowners for development rights – or easements, which typically are the difference between what the land would sell for on the open market as farmland versus for development. Those differences that can run several thousand dollars an acre.

All easement arrangements allow the landowner and his or her heirs, or succeeding owners, to keep using the property for agriculture, forestry or approved conservation activities. For the most part, the deals are irreversible and run with the land in perpetuity, Killian said.

Harford County's preservation program is funded through a .5 percent property transfer tax, which has been running on average about $7.5 million annually since 2015 and is projected at $8 million in the next fiscal year, according to budget documents.

As originally set up, easement purchases are paid out over 20 years, with the county buying a form of bond called a U.S. Treasury strip, which don't pay annual interest, but rather are sold at a discount and pay back the full price of the land purchase at maturity, similar to the way savings bonds work. The program was set up this way in the early 1990s to spread out the landowner's tax liability.

In recent years, however, low interest rates have made the county's program less desirable compared with the state's, which makes full payments at the time the easement transaction closes, Killian said.

One of the goals of the HarfordNEXT land use plan adopted last year was "finding a balance between development and preserving land," Boniface said.

One of the major points of contention in the plan was the future of the Churchville-Creswell area, where a number of large farms still in operation are surrounded by residential developments.

Harford has a citizen board that oversees its program and any properties that are offered for easement purchases are ranked according to several factors, most prominently the suitability of their soils for agriculture, he explained.

Fewer takers

The county will make offers based on the rankings of the properties, but Killian said owners of many of the top-ranked properties aren't accepting, sometimes because of the amount of easement price offered, or because they want cash upfront.

"We've been going down to the teens [on the list] before we are getting acceptances," he said.

Last spring, the county council approved the preservation of four farms encompassing nearly 550 acres at a cost of $2 million, or an average of $3,600 per acre.

Killian also pointed out that location currently is not considered in the ranking system, but would be factored in with the proposed incentive.

Boniface, whose family farm in Darlington has been in the state preservation program for decades, said there are all sorts of individual financial and estate planning factors involved in such decisions from the landowner's perspective.

One drawback to the state program, he noted, is that landowners from around the state are competing for a finite pool of money each year that is subject to the budget machinations of the politicians in Annapolis. The pool of money in the Harford program is funded by a dedicated source and can't be used for anything but preservation.

Killian said they want to attract more farms that are in proximity to farms already in preservation that also are on the fringe of developed areas and whose owners potentially could be "pressured" to sell for development. Ideally, he said, the minimum size of such tracts would be 50 to 75 acres.

Farms that are preserved but are subject to potential encroachment from other activities, he added, typically require "a higher dollar value per acre" when easement offers are made.

If the incentive is approved, the easement purchases themselves would still be handled under the current 20-year installment purchase agreements, which led several of the council members to question if that aspect of the program should be changed.

Boniface said that is not the intent of the legislation, or the administration, although he noted the council still has the final say legislatively on how the program is structured.

Who benefits?

Councilman Jim McMahan asked if one advantage to the incentive will be "to slow down sprawl."

"It's one intent and it's something that hasn't be accounted for before," Boniface replied.

McMahan also wanted to know what the county citizen gets "when we spend the money."

Killian attempted to answer, admittedly in the abstract, but saying it "enhances quality of life" and protects higher quality soils and preserves a character many people wanted when they settled in the county.

One of the authors of the original program, Jeffrey Wilson, who was county council president from 1990 to 1994, offered a more concrete perspective.

"I think one of the greatest benefits of farmland preservation, one that is rarely mentioned and can never be emphasized enough, is that we get food security – to be able to know that, in this largely non-irrigated farming community, if push came to shove, we could raise the food for the people who live here," said Wilson, who lives on a preserved farm in Street.

Wilson praised the proposed incentive, saying it is a good "first step" toward "protecting the viability" of the farmland in the Churchville-Creswell area.

"We all know that whatever we are doing in life we have to retool, and this program has been adjusted in various ways over the 25 years it has been in place," he said. "This is an adjustment; it is a new tool, an experiment, and we'll see how it works."

Barring any amendments, the council could vote on the incentive legislation as early as its next legislative session on May. 2.

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