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Now isn’t the time to pull back on land preservation, Harford Land Trust director says | READER COMMENTARY

As the Executive Director of the Harford Land Trust, our county’s only non-government organization dedicated to land preservation, I felt the need to respond to and clarify some assertions made in a recent letter to the editor about Harford’s land preservation program.

Harford County’s population has grown by 70% since 1980 to well over 250,000 people. Projections estimate that we will add another 50,000 people over the next 30 years.

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Most of these future residents will live on land that we now know and love as farms and forests. Open land, or “green fields," are much cheaper and faster to develop than lands with existing or prior infrastructure, known as “brown fields.”

Disparate low-density residential housing will require the extension of costly public services to the far reaches of the county at significant taxpayer expense. Local studies show that new residences do not pay their way — homes require approximately $1.14 in public services for every dollar they contribute. In comparison, farms require approximately $0.91 in public services for every dollar they contribute.

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Low-density residential housing also means a decline in our vibrant agricultural economy, which supports over 3,000 jobs in Harford County and $46 million in agricultural products sold. The loss of farms and forests is also the permanent loss of natural resources on which we depend for clean air and water, habitat, local food, stormwater management, and space to recreate.

Harford County has preserved about half of its 100,000 acres of farmland and open space. This success represents over 40 years of public and private investment to protect our most valuable open spaces.

Harford’s Agricultural Land Preservation Program is funded by the Real Estate Transfer Tax, not the general fund. When property changes hands, 1% is levied and divided equally between school construction and land preservation. The money ebbs and flows along with the real estate market and provides for a balance of open space and new schools as we grow.

The money paid to landowners to preserve their land is not a “windfall profit.” It is just compensation for the sale of a valuable commodity — the right to develop their land. Data show that the money received is reinvested locally through the purchase of equipment, replacement of farm buildings, implementation of best practices, expansion of livestock herds, or the hiring of additional employees.

Land values in our county are some of the highest in the nation, and simple economics tells us that it is only a matter of time before the pressure to sell becomes too much. For a glimpse of our future, one must only look at a county like Montgomery or Howard, where virtually all land is either developed or preserved.

Despite the challenges of COVID-19, the local real estate market for single-family homes continues to be strong. This is not the time to pull back and stop preserving farms and forests. We need to continue using the dedicated funds from the Real Estate Transfer Tax to preserve land before our window of opportunity closes.

KRISTIN KIRKWOOD

White Hall

The author is the executive director of the Harford Land Trust.

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