Development prohibited on more than 1,000 acres of Howard farms

Howard County's agricultural preservation program committed over the past two years to buy development rights to more than 1,000 acres of farmland, as a slow housing market helped boost landowners' interest in the easements.

The county announced last week that all of the money in the program has been spoken for, and said a continued down market will likely slow the process of collecting enough to protect more land.

The Agricultural Land Preservation Program — funded through real estate transfer taxes — allows agricultural property owners to apply for easements that would "extinguish the development rights and limit the use of the land," said program administrator Joy Levy. The county will spend $39.5 million on the easements over two decades.

Levy said it's unclear when the county will again seek out new land for another round of easements. In order to fund another group of properties, the county must wait for transfer tax revenue to catch up.

Thirteen property owners applied for the easements program in June 2009. The Agricultural Land Preservation Board then ranked the properties, evaluating size, soil capability and productivity, and proximity to other preserved properties before offering a price. Each deal went before the County Council for approval.

"It's important," Levy said of the program. "The development pressure has always been pretty high."

But Levy said the program will likely not begin to dole out another round of easements any time soon. The program had more money when the economy was better, but in a thriving housing market, it was difficult for the county to compete with developers.

"This was the first competitive batch we've had in years … an upside to the downside." she said.

After this latest round of easements, the county's agricultural land preservation program has prohibited development on 21,637 acres in rural western Howard, where the majority of the land does not have public water and sewer system, Levy said.

Howard's program began in 1984, while the statewide program was established by the General Assembly in 1977, making Maryland one of the first states to adopt such a program.

Levy said most areas have some sort of similar program established or rely more on the state's program; "There just has to be a dedicated source of funding," she said. "Each county does it differently," she said.

"Preserving our farmland goes hand-in-hand with protecting the quality of life in Howard County," said County Executive Ken Ulman in a statement. "Local farms provide us with healthy, locally grown food, scenic landscapes, jobs, recreational opportunities," he said.

The latest batch includes 274 acres in Sykesville, 70 acres in Lisbon,107 acres in Woodbine, and more than 700 acres in Ellicott City. One Mount Airy resident, Calvin Murray, donated an easement on his 53-acre farm to the program in November.

About 500 acres in Ellicott City will come from a portion of the 892-acre Doughoregan Manor estate, which was the home of Charles Carroll of Carrollton, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. About 1,430 acres surrounding Doughoregan were previously preserved.

The owners of the estate, descendants of Carroll, want to develop part of the remaining land into homes to help raise money to restore the estate, which once totaled more than 10,000 acres. Residents along the eastern edge of the property, nearest the proposed development, have complained about the potential increase in traffic, sewage problems and the visual impact of new homes.

Up to 325 houses have been proposed for 221 acres in the northeast corner of the estate near Frederick Road. Howard County would get 36 acres to expand Kiwanis-Wallas Park. The rest of the land, between Route 108 and Frederick Road, would be preserved, including the nearly 300-year-old family mansion and several dozen outbuildings.

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