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Harford council approves 15 farms for land preservation, but some members say process needs more scrutiny

The Harford County Council unanimously passed a raft of agriculture preservation bills Tuesday night, but still has some qualms with the process for selecting the farms for conservation.

Introduced at the behest of County Executive Barry Glassman’s administration, the legislation will preserve 15 farms by purchasing development rights easements on the properties so they can remain undeveloped.

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The 15 farms in question are primarily located in the upper reaches of the county. The easements on the properties encompass approximately 1,600 acres and cost about $9.5 million. At a hearing last month, William D. Amoss, who runs Harford’s Agricultural Land Preservation program, said the county’s goal is to preserve 75,000 acres of agricultural land by 2040. Prior to Tuesday’s approvals, the program had preserved approximately 56,000 acres.

Councilman Tony Giangiordano said Tuesday the program has seen success, but the process should be reevaluated, particularly the grading system for applications to the program and the proximity of growth around the farms to make sure those that are more likely to face development pressure are conserved.

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Councilman Robert Wagner echoed Giangiordano; the preservation program is solid, he said, but the five-member Agriculture Preservation Advisory Board that helps the county meet its preservation targets should be independent from outside influence. Last month, Wagner expressed concern that all five members’ terms had expired, some as far back as 2018.

“What I’m opposed to what it has developed into and how it is being processed now,” Wagner said. “It should be an autonomous board that has no other influence from any other sources.”

Some of the 15 properties, Wagner said, were not facing development pressure; some did not even have water or sewer connections. He suggested that the program consider productive farmland — not just open space — for conservation and look at marginal soil types differently in making an assessment.

After the first hearing on the properties, Wagner thought about voting against a few of the bills but ultimately decided to approve them because the issue of the process is separate from the approval of the properties that went through it.

“I had considered voting against some of these at the time after the hearing, but at the same time that would be wrong because that is the criteria we have in place now,” he said. “They played by the rules, they were evaluated by the board, and it would be wrong for us to come back now and says ‘eh, we don’t like the rules.’”

Still, Wagner said the process should be reconsidered before more agriculture preservation parcels come before the county council.

Councilman Andre Johnson said he was also going to vote against the majority of the bills, but recognized that it would not be right to oppose the legislation after the properties went through selection.

“It would be unfair for us at this time to vote against something that is already the law of the land,” he said. “With that being said, this council needs to really take a look at this program and revisit it in its totality.”

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