While agriculture preservation is a broadly appealing program to the Harford County Council and its constituents, the most recent approval of more than $8 million in easements created something of a stir.
Councilman Andre Johnson voted against a raft of agricultural preservation easements at the council’s June 15 meeting, saying that many of the applications for the easements were not filled out correctly, nor was the land in line with the intent of the program.
After a heated exchange, the 24 preservation resolutions passed 6-1, with Johnson the dissenting vote. The resolutions accounted for almost 1,500 acres of land and are worth nearly $8.6 million by the county’s estimate, subject to modification by the county administration “under certain circumstances,” according to the legislation.
The county’s agricultural preservation program allows it to purchase easements on certain properties, extinguishing their development rights and preventing construction on farmland. The program is voluntary and does not totally close the land off for other uses. With approval, preserved properties can be used for wedding venues, breweries and wineries.
While Johnson is not against the agricultural preservation program — and has voted to grant such easements in the past — he said that many of the properties ought to be in a forest conservation program instead, and that the council and administration knew that.
Citing the county code, Johnson said the agricultural preservation program is meant to conserve land for production of “food and fiber” for the people of the county, which many of the properties up for an easement did not.
“We know for a fact that a lot of this stuff is messed up,” Johnson said at the meeting. “Half of these applications aren’t even filled out right.”
The council opted to approve the 24 bills as a package, rather than vote on them individually.
Johnson planned to vote for the approval of 10 of the bills. The other 14, though, had shaky applications in his view. Some listed the only agricultural use for the property as “timber,” did not provide information about the land or offer explanations for why it should be granted an agricultural easement.
The application for an easement on the 67.57-acre property at 902 Terra Bella Court in Fallston listed its current agricultural uses as “TBD,” or to be determined, and offered no reason for its preservation. It was approved for an approximately $307,004 easement.
Another 48.65-acre property at 1303 Sharon Acres Road in the Forest Hill area attributed $0 of income from agricultural production but listed hay cultivation, chickens and a few heifers on its application. That property was approved for a $281,221 easement.
Some applicants wrote they were seeking an agricultural easement to preserve the property strictly for family uses.
At least one conservation easement was sought for the property owner’s family to seasonally hunt there. That property was approved for an easement worth $100,000.
Johnson said the council knew something was wrong with the program and had conversations about it with others on the council, but that last week’s vote was “kicking the can” when they knew the properties did not appear suited for the program. Many of the properties do not have uses that align with the intent of the agricultural preservation program to benefit citizens.
The county government’s agricultural preservation department’s website also states that the program is for protecting “productive agricultural land and woodland providing for the continued production of food and fiber.”
Billy Boniface, the chief advisor to County Executive Barry Glassman and a candidate for the executive office in 2022, was quick to defend the preservation program. Posted to his campaign’s Facebook page, he accused Johnson, “the County Council’s lone Democrat,” of taking shots at farmers.
In a statement posted to his campaign website, Boniface said the easements protect Harford County’s history and natural resources. He also said preservation saves the county on the costly expansion of infrastructure into rural areas. With less development comes fewer people, he wrote, meaning fewer schools, roads and homes to manage.
Land preservation would be one of his top priorities if elected, Boniface wrote.
In an interview, Boniface said the ag preservation program is limited by the provisions of the county code which requires applicants’ properties be scored.
The County Land Preservation Advisory Board presents its ranked list of properties to the county administration for review and approval, land preservation coordinator William Amoss said. The administration can then either accept or decline the properties individually, although a specific property has never been denied for an offer, Amoss said, in his nearly 31 years working with the ag preservation program.
Right of way requests and certain uses that the county’s legal department might deem not allowed under the easement agreement may be declined, however, he said.
The easement program is paid for with revenue collected from the 1% transfer tax on real estate transactions, Boniface said. The state requires those proceeds be evenly split between agricultural preservation and schools. Any change to the proportion of funding flowing one way or another would have to be approved by the General Assembly, he said.
Forests are an agricultural product, Boniface said, and require harvesting to produce paper, lumber and other products, putting them in the ambit of the agricultural easement. Properties that are being preserved when they have no current agricultural products, he said, could be used to cultivate in the future.
“Development rights and development really do pay off [to the landowner],” he said. “When you think really long and hard about giving away development rights, we should compensate them for that.”
Multiple members of the council have held concerns about the program and recommended the process for grading and selecting properties be re-evaluated. The last time the council was faced with the agricultural preservation easements was when it approved easements for approximately 1,600 acres of land at the cost of about $9.5 million on Dec. 1. The council unanimously approved the legislation.
Council President Patrick Vincenti said that Johnson did not speak for the entire council. Vincenti saw the benefits of preserving land throughout the county and lauded the program, which has set a goal of preserving 75,000 acres of ag land by 2040. Already, more than 56,000 acres are in preservation.
Some of the applications went back years and were fairly evaluated by the criteria in place, Councilman Robert Wagner said, but he agreed that the process needed to be ironed out. He said that the county administration was able to justify each property’s deservedness of an easement.
Councilman Tony Giangiordano said he wanted to see a study group on agriculture preservation established to examine the program. He supports the program, but felt there was more information and input the council should have going forward.
Councilman Chad Shrodes said he started looking into the agriculture preservation program around winter of 2020, but shortly after a batch of 15 agricultural easements had been approved, notice was being sent to the next batch of waiting property owners. The council approved 15 such easements on Dec. 1. He was supportive of the program, but agreed that it should be looked at and improved.
“It seemed like right after the last round, we rolled right into this — it was pretty quick,” Shrodes said. “For me, myself, and other associates to try to come up with how we would redo this, it was like impossible.”
Johnson said his skepticism of the latest batch of easements was a policy decision, not a political or party dependent decision. He said he was for agricultural preservation, but could not condone the program as it is currently run.
“If Mr. Boniface wants to sit up here and say he doesn’t know what I am talking about, then shame on him,” he said.
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Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly attributed a statement to Billy Boniface rather than William Amoss. The article has been corrected. The Aegis apologizes for the error.