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A tiger swallowtail butterfly on a sunflower in the Maryland Agricutural Resource Council (MARC) field.
A tiger swallowtail butterfly on a sunflower in the Maryland Agricutural Resource Council (MARC) field. (Kim Hairston, Baltimore Sun)

Baltimore County land preservation advocates last week issued a call to action for 2016 on the county and state levels. The Baltimore County Land Trust Alliance, with an office in the Baltimore County Center for Maryland Agriculture, in Cockeysville, sponsored the Dec. 2 meeting at which state and county officials supported an agenda that focused on land acquisition and increased funding.

As of 2015, Baltimore County has preserved 62,828 acres of land through a variety of mechanisms, among them county purchases, donated easements and developer-required land set-asides in rural RC4 and RC6 zoning districts, according to Rob DeFord, a board member of Long Green Valley Conservancy and president of Boordy Vineyards who moderated the meeting.

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The county goal is to preserve a minimum of 80,000 acres, although there is no deadline to do so, said DeFord. Most of the land preserved so far is in the north and northwest areas of the county.

Speaking at the meeting, County Executive Kevin Kamenetz said that "in the last five years, the county has spent $10 million to preserve 50,000 acres."

Kamenetz pointed to the Maryland Board of Public Works, which last week at the county's request, approved the purchase of 257 acres in Granite from Bethel AME Church for $1.8 million.

The church had proposed to build on the property, a largely rural area off Old Court and Hernwood roads. The land will be used for trail-based recreation.

The Baltimore County Land Trust Alliance consists of six grassroots, volunteer-run land trusts. It also wants the county to increase funding for land preservation in its capital budget request that voters would have to approve in the fall 2016 elections.

The alliance is advocating for a $6 million bond bill, the funding level in 2006 and 2008, rather than the $2 million in funding in 2014.

"We need consistent funding," DeFord said.

On the state level, the alliance is seeking sponsors among state legislators for the 2016 Maryland General Assembly for a bill on Program Open Space. Begun in 1969 by the state Department of Natural Resources, Program Open Space buys land for public use and largely funds local land preservation programs via a half-percent tax on real estate transactions.

DeFord said that over the years, Program Open Space has been raided of more than $1 billion that has been used for other programs. "We are proposing legislation in 2016 that would put a 'lock box' on the program," he said.

At the meeting, State Sen. James Brochin, a Democrat representing the area, and state delegates and Republicans Susan Aumann and Christopher West who also represent the area, agreed that such a measure was necessary. "I will strongly support a lock box because of the increase in the structural deficit," said West, making Program Open Space funds attractive.

On the county council level, Councilman David Marks, a Perry Hall Republican, spoke about two projects in his Towson-area district that highlighted the importance of land preservation. "It is important not only for rural but for densely populated urban areas," Marks said.

One project is Ridgely Manor Park, a 2-acre public park that was established in 2014. A private company donated the land to NeighborSpace of Baltimore County, a Baltimore County Land Trust Alliance member.

The second project is a bill Marks introduced before the council that would increase the fee paid by developers on five projects in downtown Towson from $145,000 to $2 million.

"The money would go to the county fund to buy more open space land," Marks said. A vote on the bill is expected this week.

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Also addressing the meeting was Joan Norman, founder and owner with her husband, Drew, of One Straw Farm, an 82-acre organic Community Supported Agriculture vegetable farm in White Hall.

Norman related how she and her husband wanted to get into farming in the early 1980s but couldn't afford the high land prices. Then they found out about land easement, a land preservation measure that puts limits on development but allows the land to be bought and sold.

"It made the land affordable. It made it possible for our family to become farmers," Norman said.

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