Carroll officials objected to the proposed transfer of $17 million from the state's agricultural land preservation fund, saying the depletion could harm the credibility of the program, in two separate meetings Wednesday.
In a hearing on the Schaefer administration's budget balancing bill, Carroll Agricultural Land Preservation Program Administrator William Powel told the House Appropriations Committee that at least four county farmers could be left in the lurch financially if the transfer is approved. The farmers had invested in new farms based on Powel's advice that the state would have money to purchase development rights to their original properties, Powel said.
The state seemed ready to grant final approval for 35 applications to sell development rights in perpetuity -- including nine from Carroll -- until the $17 million transfer was proposed to help reduce a $427 million deficit in the general fund. Most of the purchases will be delayed until after July 1, when new revenue is added, said Charles L. Benton Jr., secretary of the Department of Budget and Fiscal Planning. The state Board of Public Works was to consummate the easementsale contracts, a step which is largely a formality.
The transfer, which must be approved by the General Assembly, would leave only about $5 million in the farmland fund for the rest of fiscal 1991, ending June 30. Between $10 million and $11 million is needed to honor the 35 pending applications.
"I want to emphasize the importance of the program's credibility," said Powel, adding that farmers' whose deals have been delayed are "trapped." He also stressed that the delay could cause a domino effect, deferring action on the 401 applicationsto sell easements the state received in the last year and has yet toprocess.
Carroll has the most successful farmland protection program in the state. The program allows property owners to enter land inpreservation districts, which precludes development for a minimum offive years. During that time, they can bid to sell development rights to the state.
Several committee members also questioned the wisdom of weakening the farmland preservation program, just when applications were picking up and the governor had proposed a new land-use management program designed to save agricultural land and control development.
A state budget analyst explained that unencumbered money inseveral reserve funds, such as farmland preservation, were tapped in an effort to balance the budget.
In a meeting with the Carroll delegation, County Commissioner Julia W. Gouge urged the legislators to do what they could to avert crippling cuts in the farmland program.
Sen. Charles H. Smelser, a Senate Budget and Taxation Committee member, said his committee would try to find cuts in other areas to allow the state to honor its agreements timely.
"It's a good program," he said. "I want to keep it going."