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Harford’s agricultural land preservation program no longer beneficial in 2020 or the near future | READER COMMENTARY

On Oct. 13, the County Council introduced Bills 20-019 through 20-033 proposing that 20 agricultural landowners receive a total of $9.5 million for preserving land under the Agricultural Land Preservation Program established in 1993. This program permits any owner of agricultural land, which meets the county’s minimum qualifying criteria, to apply to sell their development rights. If the development rights on the property are purchased by the program, an easement is placed on the property restricting any future development in perpetuity, except for some exclusions that are allowed on the property.

This program was beneficial in the past but not in 2020 or the near term future. What may have been beneficial for citizens of Harford County nearly 30 years ago is not the same today.

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I view this program as the county paying ag landowners for not selling their land when the owners had no intentions of selling it. That is precisely why ag landowners submit applications every year to become part of the program. If accepted they retain full ownership; they receive incentives and full tax credits for the preserved land; they retain development rights for their family; and they receive substantial amounts of money for personal use as they desire. Records show they pay less real estate taxes than the average citizen living in a home on less than one acre.

There has been nearly 75% of all acceptable ag land in the county already preserved since the program started and it becomes questionable why the county wants to preserve more. The county zoning code restricts permitted uses within an Ag zoning district and most permitted uses require a Special Exception approval of the Board of Appeals. Why preserve more ag land when the county council has control of the permitted use for the land?

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How can these bills be good for the taxpayers or how does it benefit them? About 42% or $4 million of the total easement purchases of $9.5 million on five bills will be paid to one family and 11 of the 15 bills are more than $330,000 each. Why should the county pay this amount based upon current economic conditions due to the COVID-19 pandemic and possible shortfalls of income revenue?

Why is the county not using some of the transfer tax funds for preserving or purchasing land within the Bel Air area such as Abingdon Woods, land adjacent to the Lirodendron Museum, and the land at Plumtree and Emmorton roads? This would be ideal for parks, recreation and other purposes that benefits all citizens of Harford County rather than a few ag landowners.

We simply do not need any more warehouses, restaurants, banks, apartments, retail stores, etc. Our infrastructure will not support it and the additional traffic and developments proposed will not promote the health, safety, quality of living and the general welfare of our community which is the very purpose of the Harford County Zoning Code.

The County Council has the legislative authority to make amendments to County Code Sections 60 and 123-50 to amend the Ag Land Preservation Program and to redistribute funds received from the transfer tax paid by taxpayers. They also have the ability to disapprove Bills 20-019 through 20-033, in whole or part, after the public hearing on these bills on Nov. 10 at 7 p.m. The public hearing is an opportunity for citizens to voice their opinion to council members.

WILLIAM WEHLAND

Bel Air

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