Bills putting 22 properties into permanent agricultural preservation status have been approved by the Harford County Council by a 6-1 vote, with Councilman Mike Perrone continued his opposition to the program, insisting the money would be better spent elsewhere.
The Harford County government, with the council’s blessing, will spend more than $14.8 million to purchase the development rights on 2,425 acres. It is the largest amount preserved at one time in the past 10 years, according to a Harford County news release.
The landowners — who enter the county’s preservation program voluntarily — keep their property, but they enter into an agreement with the county to use it for agricultural purposes in perpetuity.
“It’s a big, major decision on their part, whether to permanently preserve that land in perpetuity forever,” Bill Amoss, head of agricultural land preservation for the county government, said during a June 12 public hearing on Bills 18-011 through 18-032. “Fifty, 100, 200 years from now, it’s still going to be preserved, so it’s a wonderful historic program.”
Council members voted on all 22 bills at once during their June 19 legislative session, the final meeting before the council’s summer recess. Perrone cast the lone negative vote.
He echoed concerns his colleagues, council President Richard Slutzky and Councilman James McMahan, expressed about funding for local schools during their June 12 legislative session when Harford County Public Schools budget and finance leaders asked the council to approve transfers in their fiscal 2018 budget, a typical request that happens at the end of the fiscal year.
Their request included a transfer of more than $1.4 million to cover Other Post-Employment Benefits, or OPEB, obligations, which helps fund retiree benefits such as health insurance.
Deborah Judd, assistant superintendent for business services, acknowledged the school system’s unfunded OPEB liability is in the “hundreds of millions” of dollars, though.
Slutzky said later in the meeting that Harford County ranks 12th in the state for the amount of local funding contributed to public schools. He also expressed concerns about the potential for county government to take on more responsibility for things the state currently contributes funds to, such as systemic capital repairs to school HVAC systems or roofs.
“The Harford County government is in no position to absorb these costs, just like we’re in no position to come up with the money for HCPS’s unfunded OPEB liability, just like we’re in no position to fund a county-run ambulance service, put school resource officers in every school or fill any of the other needs that I addressed when we voted on the budget,” Perrone said June 19.
The county uses half of the annual revenue generated by the 1 percent real estate transfer tax to fund agricultural preservation programs — the other half goes to school construction, land acquisition and school construction debt. Perrone proposed during the council’s spring budget deliberations that the more than $24 million allocated for ag preservation in County Executive Barry Glassman’s fiscal 2019 budget be frozen.
His goal was to eventually shift that funding toward what he saw as more pressing needs, such as school safety, the nascent county-run EMS system, rising healthcare costs and county employee salaries.
Perrone suggested preserving farmland through zoning regulations.
His proposal was denounced by his colleagues on the council, the county executive, prominent members of Harford’s agricultural community and advocates for land preservation. The council approved next year’s budget in mid-May with the ag preservation funding intact.
Perrone said June 19 that it would be easy to do nothing “and let a future council take the beating for having been placed in the unavoidable position of having to raise taxes.”
“The right thing to do would be to start preparing for the future now, and [be] looking for places where we can cut in programs that have already met their original goal and that meet a need that private money can serve just as well as public money,” he said.
Perrone cited three bills for further commentary. Bill 18-013 covers 86.9 acres owned by the Turnbaugh family in the 3500 block of Churchville Road outside Aberdeen. The bill sets a purchase price of up to $512,228.57, plus interest.
Aberdeen Mayor Patrick McGrady expressed his concerns in a note to the council about putting a property less than one mile from the Route 22/I-95 interchange into permanent preservation, as city officials plan to build a water tank in the area and hope to spur development around the highway interchange.
McGrady asked the council to vote against acquiring the Turnbaughs’ development rights, or those on any other property within one mile of Aberdeen’s corporate limits.
“I think we need to respect the desire of the city to control its own destiny and not seek to impede potential future economic development with easements,” Perrone said.
He did not get support from his colleagues, though.
“That family has decided they want to do this,” Woods said. “I’m not worried about what Aberdeen has to say; individual property rights come first.”
Perrone later said he understands private property rights and respects present-day landowners’ decisions, but he is concerned about those who come after them.
“To then bind future property owners at the expense of what could be future economic development, I think we’re infringing on the ability of municipalities to do their own planning in the same way that the county does its planning,” he said.
Perrone also took issue with Bill 18-014, which calls for preserving 69.3 acres, owned by Susan and William Stevenson, along Nelson Mill Road in Jarrettsville.
The purchase price is up to $367,123.68, plus interest. Nearly all of the land is forested, except for a small portion farmed by the Grimmel family, according to the Stevensons’ application.
Amoss explained during the public hearing that “woodland is a crop; it just takes a long time to harvest” for timber.
Perrone was not convinced, neither during the public hearing nor at last week’s legislative session.
“I don’t think having a logger come in once every few decades to harvest trees is what most people have in mind when they think of farming,” he said.
McMahan invited Perrone to come help him work on a 2-acre plot where he raises Christmas trees. He said operations such as raising trees or poultry might not seem like agriculture, but they are.
“It’s all agriculture,” McMahan said. “It’s adding to the economy; there are jobs associated with it.”
Perrone’s final concern was with Bill 18-024, which involves 460.9 acres “between and around” Aldino Road and Carsins Run Road in Churchville, owned by the Harford County Investors Trust. The bill sets a purchase price of up to $2.7 million, plus interest.
The land, a former dairy farm, has been owned by the trust since 1970, when it was called the Harford County Investors Co., according to the application.
Much of the property is leased by the Aldino Sod Farm, plus the Cedar Lane Sports Foundation Inc. leases 36 acres for its activities, according to the application.
“A farm that is owned by the Harford County Investors Trust is clearly not a family farm, which was also made clear in their application,” Perrone said.
The applicants state that “several of our members have had a history of farming or involvement in the farming industry and as a result feel strongly that the preservation of farmland is very important in Harford County.”
Councilman Chad Shrodes lauded the Glassman administration for putting forth an incentive program, through which property owners in select areas in Forest Hill, Jarrettsville, Churchville and Creswell can get an extra one-time cash payment of $1,000 per acre for participating in the preservation program.
There are more than 1,000 acres, or 40 percent of the more than 2,400 slated for preservation, in the incentive areas, according to the county’s news release. The council approved the incentive program in 2017.
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“It’s nice seeing the selection of applicants that have come in, obviously it’s working and it’s really the best tool that we have,” Shrodes said of ag preservation. “We don’t have the strongest agricultural zoning, but we do have one of the nation’s best land preservation programs, and it’s even better now and I think it’s going to serve our county well into the future.”