Seven bills, which would put 683 acres into agricultural preservation if approved, are before the Harford County Council.
Bills 19-018 through 19-024, which were subjects of council public hearings Oct. 1, are scheduled for a vote during the upcoming meeting Tuesday, according to an agenda posted on the Harford County website.
Harford County will have preserved more than 55,000 acres of agricultural property, should the seven bills be approved, according to Bill Amoss, administrator for agricultural land preservation. Amoss, along with Director of Administration Billy Boniface, gave a presentation during the public hearing on the seven properties and their owners, who are seeking approval to sell their development rights to the county.
The county government, using a portion of the revenue generated by the local real estate transfer tax, purchases all development rights and places a preservation easement on the land. That means the land can only be used for agricultural purposes “in perpetuity,” according to Boniface, who stressed that “no general fund dollars are used to pay for these easements.”
Harford County has been working since 1977 to preserve farmland, either through local programs funded via the transfer tax — the Harford County Agricultural Land Preservation Program — or state-administered entities such as the Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Foundation or the Rural Legacy Program, according to the county website.
“Once they go into the program, it allows future landowners to farm,” Amoss told council members. “The real purpose is to give an option for the county landowners, as a way to get equity out of their land other than residentially subdivide or sell the farm.”
Amoss listed a number of benefits of agricultural preservation, including protecting local open spaces and wildlife habitat, promoting natural stormwater management, maintaining Harford’s “historic and rural character,” as well as securing a local food source “that will only help in years to come,” he said.
The county is reaching 55,000 acres preserved, and its goal is to protect 75,000 acres by 2040, Amoss said.
The local government will spend $4.58 million to purchase development rights from the owners of the seven properties, according to the bills. Each application is assigned a score based on factors such as soil quality as well as spending caps — $6,500 per acre and $100,000 per development right for the first seven rights and $50,000 for each development right after that.
Those selected for preservation ranked in the top seven out of 50 applicants, according to Amoss, who noted the county has “more applicants than funding.”
“We encourage people to stay on the list, and we will get to them,” he said.
The applicants selected for preservation include:
The Bachman family, Fallston, 80 acres
Cambria Meadows Farm, Whiteford, 65 acres
The Cole family, Whiteford, 74 acres
The Daney family, Darlington, 34 acres
The Estate of Mary E. Rigdon, Jarrettsville, 196 acres
Ben, George and John Rigdon, Jarrettsville, 177 acres
The Kelly family, Darlington, 57 acres
Councilman Andre Johnson asked Amoss if tracts where property owners raise forest can be preserved, in addition to cropland. Amoss said forest tracts are eligible, noting that “we have preserved big tracts over the years.”
Johnson, who represents the Edgewood and Joppa areas, asked if any farmland along Route 40, within the county’s development envelope, can be preserved.
“There certainly is some there, and we always are talking to the landowners,” Amoss replied. “It’s their call of course — it’s a voluntary program.”
Elie Fraiji, 16, of Pylesville, spoke on behalf of his grandparents, Dr. Herbert Martello and Peachie Martello, who purchased Cambria Meadows Farm in 1962. Fraiji, a junior at The John Carroll School in Bel Air, said his grandfather maintained a practice as a family physician on the farm.
“The farm has now been passed down to their five children, and they would like to continue their parents’ legacy and see the farm passed down to future generations,” Fraiji said during the public hearing, which he attended with his 22-year-old cousin, Paul Martello.
Fraiji also thanked the Gross brothers, who have been farming at Cambria Meadows for the past 24 years, for taking care of the land.
“Their careful farm practices, combined with the location of other preserved farms, soil quality and the lay of the land, is the reason our farm is being considered to be in preservation,” Fraiji said.
Bel Air South resident Bill Wehland, who stressed he is taking a neutral position on the ag preservation bills, noted the county spent $14.9 million to preserve more than 2,400 acres in 2018. He said the preservation program can be a source of “windfall profits” for local farming families, who avoid having to sell their property for residential development and can maintain their agricultural legacy.
Wehland said he believes ag preservation is worthwhile, "but you have to consider, any landowner who has 100 more acres and never intends to sell their land to a developer will benefit greatly from the program. In other words, they’ll be paid by the county for not doing something they never intended to do.”
Jean Salvatore, of Bel Air, spoke about a topic related to the bills during the public comment portion of the council’s legislative session, which was also held Oct. 1 but after the public hearings.
Salvatore, a member of Harford County Climate Action, pressed council members to preserve the more than 300 acres near the Route 24/I-95 interchange in Abingdon, land that is slated to be developed as the Abingdon Business Park warehouse, commercial and retail complex.
She listed reasons for preserving that forested area, as well as farmland, in order to protect mature trees, wetlands, wildlife habitat and preserve water quality in the surrounding area, as well as avoid creating more traffic along already well-traveled highways.