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Glenn Shirley can remember stories his father used to tell him of the farm he grew up on — of the emerald and golden landscape, the bliss of an uninterrupted view of nature's bounty.

Those stories are just memories now, dimmed and blurred with each passing day. That farm has now been turned into a shopping mall and housing development, just like many farms in Carroll County.

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For Shirley, the decision to apply for an easement on the farm where he lives, to protect it from future development, was a simple one, he said.

"People have a lot of different reasons for getting an easement — some of it's personal; some people have financial reasons," said Shirley, a member of the Carroll County Agricultural Land Preservation Advisory Board.

"One of the big things I thought about is even if something happens where I no longer own the farm, my kids can still stop and see the farm I grew up on."

Carroll County's Agricultural Land Preservation Program acts to preserve the county's agricultural land by placing a conservation easement on properties to prevent future development. The landowners who apply to the program are compensated for their potential economic loss, said Deborah Bowers, acting program manager.

"We have placed easements on more than 65,000 acres and more than 600 farms [in the county]," Bowers said. "We have more preserved farms than any other county in the state."

Currently the program is reviewing 18 applications for easement, she said. It had received more than that, but these were the only applications approved.

"Some that weren't accepted were more suited to other programs," she said. "One that was not accepted by the advisory board is now under review for the Rural Legacy Program."

The Rural Legacy Program seeks to preserve the cultural heritage of rural communities by establishing greenbelts of forests and farms surrounding these communities. The county also runs the Critical Farms Program — which assists farmers in purchasing land — and the Carroll County Land Trust, which seeks to preserve farmland through public education and the donation of conservation easements.

This year, Bowers said, she believes the program will have the funding to make appropriate offers to each of the 18 applicants.

The application period for 2014 ended in mid-January, but the review process can take as long as a year, Bowers said. The application period for 2015 will probably begin sometime around late November, she said.

Sometimes legal work can bog down the process, such as if a property has a lien on it. Occasionally, a land survey is needed, especially for older farms, she said. Some farms reviewed in past years hadn't had surveys conducted since the 1840s. If a modern survey has not been done, one needs to be completed, and that can take time.

"Sometimes we have farms that go through the process rather quickly, which is nice, but you can't spend taxpayer money without review and consideration by advisory boards and elected officials," Bowers said. "We do try to complete the process in a year or less."

To be eligible for the program, a farm must meet certain requirements, she said. It must be at least 60 acres large. If it is less than 60 but more than 30, the farm could still be eligible but must be adjacent to an already-preserved farm and have at least four lots, and the landowner may not request to retain any lot rights. Any farm less than 30 acres will not be accepted into the program.

A farm must also meet certain soil and woodland quality tests, Bowers said. If the land is found to be unsuitable for agricultural growth, the farm will not be considered.

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Once these standards are measured, each farm is given a ranking according to its level of qualification to determine which is eligible to receive an offer. Applications will be reviewed for approval by the advisory board before being sent to the Carroll Board of County Commissioners for final approval.

For compensation, the program offers two methods of payment to the landowner: a lump-sum payment equal to the fair market value of the property or an installment purchase agreement, which offers twice-yearly, tax-free interest payments for 20 years with another installment at the end of the 20-year payments worth the value of the property at the time the easement was purchased. For 2014, the interest rate for applicants is 5.25 percent.

"After the initial appraisal, which is contracted out to an independent person, we contract a review of the appraisal," Bowers said. "We want to make sure we are making a fair offer."

The program has been operating in Carroll County since 1980, she said. Carroll was one of the first counties to respond to Maryland's Agricultural Land Preservation Foundation and — thanks to the efforts of those interested in preserving the county's agricultural heritage — Carroll made headway early in the program's history.

"We hold more state easements than any other county in [Maryland]," Bowers said.

Shirley said that since the state first started funding agricultural easements in the 1980s, the process has drastically changed in Carroll County. When his farm was preserved, it was mostly a state-funded program, he said. The format of the program differed as well. It was a competitive bidding process at the start. He had to research the value of his farm to find a fair cost of potential future developments.

Once he had homed in on a price, he had to submit it as a bid to the state. That figure would compete against other bids that were received in the same yearly cycle. If his farm's value was outbid, and the county did not have the necessary funding to purchase easements on all properties submitted, there was a chance his bid would not have been accepted.

Since then, the state program has more or less shut down, Shirley said.

"We receive some money from the state, but it's a small percentage of the preservation that we do," he said. "Most of our funding comes from Carroll County. This is different than most other counties, who do not finance their own programs."

For fiscal year 2015, the county has dedicated $2,413,300 for the Agricultural Land Preservation Program.

Now, rather than a bidding process, the county will make offers on qualified properties that rank high in their estimates with regard to soil quality and other measurements, he said.

Carroll County is an agricultural community, Shirley said. It is known for its farmland, and without it, a critical facet of the county's character, history and development would be lost. That so many farm owners have applied for the program does not surprise him, he said.

"I think a lot of people are committed to the program," Shirley said. "They see the benefit to the county and agriculture in general."

Reach staff writer Wiley Hayes at 410-857-3315 or wiley.hayes@carrollcountytimes.com.

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For more information

To find out more about Carroll County's Agricultural Land Preservation Program or its other preservation programs, visit http://www.ccgovernment.carr.org/ccg/agpres/.

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