Carroll officials are considering a program to save "critical" farmsfrom development while the state's preservation program is in financial straits.

A proposal by Agricultural Land Preservation Program Administrator William Powel would allow the county to pay farmers a percentage of their land's value in exchange for entering the propertyin a preservation district, which precludes development for five years.

"Critical" farms would be those adjacent to other farms in preservation districts and on the market because the owner experiences financial pressures.

"There's nothing out there now to save those farms from development now that the state is unable to act fast enough," said Powel, who introduced his proposal to the County Commissioners last week.

"I continue to receive calls from people who want to know about the availability of (state) money for easement purchases, butwhen I explain the backlog of applications, those people perceive there's not much point in pursuing it."

The county's farm preservation effort is recognized nationally. To date, 331 Carroll farms totaling 41,407 acres are preserved, said Powel. Of those, development rights have been sold in perpetuity to the state on 151 farms totaling 20,150 acres. Carroll leads the state in preserved acreage.

Under the proposal, farmers would be offered 40 percent of the easement value-- the property's fair market value minus its agricultural value -- if the owner enters his land in a preservation district and attempts to sell development rights to the Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Foundation.

For example, the county would pay a landowner $60,000 for a 100-acre farm for which the easement value was $1,500 per acre, about average for Carroll. Ideally, the offer would enable the farmer to continue farming or turn the operation over to heirs without selling lots for development.

If the development rights were sold to the state, the farmer would reimburse the county without interest. The money would be returned to a revolving fund, to be lent to other Carroll farmers.

In essence, the county would offer interest-free loans to farmers while they wait to sell development rights to thestate. Once a pool of money is amassed, the program would only cost the county in lost interest.

Under the state program, the county must provide 40 percent of the cost of any state purchase.

Compensating for last year's budget deficit, the General Assembly transferred$17 million from the farm preservation program, virtually depleting the fund and stalling the purchasing process. Carroll had 53 applications pending in fiscal 1991, said Powel, adding that he anticipated the state would be able to make offers on only five Carroll farms per year for the foreseeable future.

The commissioners expressed interest in the plan but said they were not sure how to finance it other than through bond sales. They assigned the budget director to study the costs of such a program compared to financing infrastructure shoulda "critical" farm be developed.

"The process available to sell easements to the state takes 18 months," said Commissioner President Donald I. Dell, whose 350-acre farm is in the state program. "Some farmers don't want to wait that long even if the state has the money. When those farms come on the market, you have to act quick or developerswill buy it."

Carroll Agricultural Preservation Advisory Board Chairman Ralph L. Robertson Jr. said he supports developing a local program that could be modified as circumstances evolve. He said formation of a land trust should be considered.

"I think the state is looking for counties to develop their own plans while the state program is kind of in chaos," said Robertson, a Westminster dairy farmer. "We're looking into anything and everything that wouldn't impact the county's budget greatly but would get the same results."

Because of budget problems, the commissioners have discontinued the county's 2 1/2-year-old farmland preservation incentive program, which offered 5 percent payments for forming districts.

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