Third Swing at Farm Preservation


None too soon, the Howard County Council has passed a bill that revises the county's criteria for admission to its farmland preservation program and raises the top purchase price permissible to $6,600 an acre.

When the law takes effect in May, the Howard County government can begin saving the best pieces of farmland from the grasp of developers. The window of opportunity has been made even wider by land prices and interest rates suppressed by the recession.

In its initial form, from 1980 to 1988, the preservation program couldn't compete with what developers were offering. Builders snatched up properties throughout the go-go '80s, while the county made little headway toward its goal of protecting 30,000 acres in rural western Howard.

So, in 1988, the program was revamped. Halting its practice of paying the full price in cash up front, the county started compensating landowners with tax-free payments of the interest on the agreed-on sale price over 30 years. A balloon payment is to be made at the end of the 30-year period.

The Howard County program became a model for farmland preservation efforts throughout the nation. Locally, officials in Ellicott City were flooded with applications for easements.

However, critics worried the program had gotten too successful. They charged the government with throwing away money by enriching landowners whose properties were undevelopable anyway. From other quarters came suggestions to help balance the county budget with the $15 million acquisition fund. County Executive Charles I. Ecker and the County Council heard the rumblings and decided early last year to freeze the program.

The bill that the Howard County Council recently passed includes a strict rating formula that should ensure the county obtains only the most attractive parcels of land -- attractive especially to developers.

We can't drop this topic, though, without mentioning Councilman Paul Farragut's amendment to the bill, which makes properties in the water and sewer district (mainly the county's eastern, urban half) eligible for preservation. Given that few eastern properties would qualify, we're left to wonder whether Mr. Farragut was merely grandstanding for slow-growth advocates among the voting public.

This attempt at career preservation notwithstanding, we commend the passage of the new farmland preservation bill.

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