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To Save Farms, Try Helping Baltimore


When the American Farmland Preservation Trust pointed out in a report earlier this month that agriculture is endangered in Carroll County, the group called attention to the obvious.

In virtually every section of the county, there are houses sitting on fields that once grew wheat, corn, barley, alfalfa or hay. During the past decade, more than 17,000 acres of farmland here have been taken out of production. And despite the sluggish economy, scores of new houses are under construction, and more parcels of farmland are being turned into manicured suburban lots.

L Agriculture is under siege, as is Carroll's rural lifestyle.

The county government's policy, as expressed in the county's ++ master plan, is designed both to preserve agriculture and to allow for new development. But county residents feel that no one is paying attention to the spirit of the plan, as bulldozers continue to tear up more farmland for houses.

Where is this pressure to develop coming from?

People blame land speculators, homebuilders and others in the development business, but those players are only reacting to underlying demographic conditions, which are very easy to understand.

Consider this figure: 23,695. That is the number of people who migrated from Baltimore and surrounding counties into Carroll in the 1980s.

Consider another number: 27,662. That is the increase in Carroll's population between 1980 and 1990.

From these two numbers you can draw one conclusion: nearly 9 of every 10 new people in the county during that span could be attributed to the movement of people to Carroll from other jurisdictions in Maryland.

I offer the following modest proposal to help curb this tremendous pressure: Carroll County residents should do everything in their power to make Baltimore a more attractive place to live.

If residents of the city -- and parts of Baltimore County -- had less incentive to leave, Carroll would be in a better position to control its own growth. Stopping migration out of the city and surrounding county will do more to solve Carroll's growth problems than the strategies for regulating land uses, imposing building moratoriums or linking development with the construction of roads, schools and utilities.

I realize that many people in Carroll would prefer to subject themselves to unspeakably painful torture rather lift a finger for Baltimore. In their minds, helping Baltimore solve some of its profound social, economic and educational problems is nothing more than bleeding-heart liberalism.

But they are wrong. Self-interest would be a perfectly acceptable reason for pitching in and reviving Baltimore as a strong, vibrant city with a growing population.

If tens of thousands of people continue to leave Baltimore city and county each decade, they have to migrate somewhere. And right now, one of those somewheres is Carroll County.

Like it or not, the fortunes of Baltimore and Carroll are inextricably linked. If Baltimore prospers, so does Carroll.

In a survey of 78 metropolitan areas released in March, the National League of Cities discovered in the 1980s that household incomes of city dwellers and nearby suburbanites rise and fall together. In 18 cities where incomes declined, the suburban incomes fell as well. Baltimore was in the group of 25 metropolitan areas where city and suburban incomes rose. The lTC study also pointed out that for every dollar increase in city household incomes, suburban household incomes rose $1.12.

Rather than opposing initiatives to improve Baltimore -- such as the recently approved expansion of the downtown convention center -- Carroll legislators along with their suburban colleagues ought to be among the most vocal proponents for projects designed to add jobs, housing and opportunity in the metropolis.

When Baltimore, whose real property tax rate is more than

double that of Carroll's, attempts to lower its rate, Carroll legislators should encourage it. A high property tax is a major reason people flee the city. A lower property tax rate would probably slow the city's population drain and encourage developers to invest in city housing.

Taking swipes at the city has become second nature in Carroll. Just about anything bad that happens in the county -- from crime to drugs to congested roads -- is blamed on the city and its residents.

However, if Carroll is to stop the population onslaught and the accompanying development, its residents will have to see the city in a different light.

When Alexis de Tocqueville was traveling through United States in the early 19th century, he described the driving force of the new country as "self-interest rightly understood."

For Carroll residents, helping Baltimore is in their self-interest. Embracing Baltimore after years of bashing mightn't be easy, but it must be done if the ultimate goal is to preserve Carroll's own quality of life.

Brian Sullam is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

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