Harford County has just made another Top Ten list -- being ranked 10th in the nation in farmland acres preserved by easements.
Harford has protected nearly 7,000 acres under Maryland's 12-year-old program, and is poised to add 1,100 more acres in the next few months under its new county program. That high standing may come as a surprise to the prophets of development doom who foresee Harford agricultural fields covered over by waves of concrete and asphalt. After all, the county enacted a 1 percent real estate transfer tax only this year to begin its farm easements program. More than 35 percent of the Harford farmland worked in 1965 has been converted to other uses.
Truth is, Harford is still losing sizable chunks of bucolic realty to development pressures. Purchases of farm easements by government (and private trusts) can only preserve a portion of rural lands. And in an evolving, growing economy, some transfers of land use are inevitable.
What is remarkable is that the idea of preserving agrarian acreage as a community asset is taking hold across the country, notes Deborah Bowers, who publishes the Farmland Preservation Report from her family's farm in Street. Since she began publishing the national newsletter three years ago, a half-dozen states have picked up on the idea and are considering programs similar to Maryland's pioneer law (which has protected more than 100,000 acres for farming). And existing programs have expanded their protections.
"You have to have strong political leadership to make it work, and Maryland certainly did," Ms. Bowers said. "Then, of course, you have to have the money available to pay for the program; otherwise, farmers lose faith in the program." And there must be a strong agricultural economy to keep the farms working and profitable, she added.
Ms. Bowers came up with the list of the most successful farmland preservation programs, by localities, for the latest issue of her publication.
Eight of the Top Ten are Maryland counties, whose totals have been mostly acquired under the statewide program. But six of those eight have their own local certified programs as well.
The two largest local programs in the nation are in counties better known for the wealth of their residents than for their agricultural production: Maryland's Montgomery County and Marin County in Northern California.
But that underlines two essentials for a successful farmland preservation program: community appreciation of the amenity of open farming lands as opposed to development, and the money available to put into buying easements.
These two programs differ significantly in their structure. Marin's purchase of easements on 23,000 acres committed to agriculture has been accomplished through a private land trust, with some state funding. Montgomery has protected most of its 34,000 acres through the transfer of development rights from farmland to development-planned areas.
In fact, because of the remaining potential for development on Montgomery's preserved farms, Ms. Bowers lists that county as the league leader with an asterisk. After transferring development rights, landowners can still build one home on every 25 acres. "It's farmland preservation, but it still has the potential for becoming a subdivision," Ms. Bowers said.
Carroll County ranks third on her list, with a combination of state-acquired easements and a local program. Again, it depends on how you evaluate the programs: Carroll is considered by some to be the biggest because of the large acreage placed under provisional five-year ag districts, eligible for purchase of easements but not permanently committed to preservation.
Meanwhile, Harford's new program is charging ahead full steam. The county has allocated more than $4.5 million for the purchase of easements on nearly 2,200 acres of farms by next summer, which will be mostly financed through the transfer tax.
The first five farms covering 1,100 acres will be presented for County Council approval next month. The easements average about $2,200 per acre. For that money, the owner pledges that the land will be maintained for farming and will not be developed.
Another $2.3 million is earmarked for an additional 1,100 acres next March, notes Mike Paone, who administers Harford's program. The whole easement price is not paid up front; most applicants prefer taking tax-free installment payments over 20 years. So far, 51 landowners with some 6,000 acres have applied for easement offers on their land, Mr. Paone said, which is "a great expression of interest in the program."
Harford's program gives greatest weight to properties that are full-time productive farms. Proximity to development areas (and pressures) is also a prime factor. That may result in marginal farmland's conversion to housing or commercial use, but farms with the best chances for continuing in agriculture will be preserved, Mr. Paone pointed out. With an assured funding source (half the transfer tax, the other half goes for school construction), Harford can continue to conserve farmlands with a reliability missing from the state program and in several other counties.
"I'm never keen for a tax increase," Mr. Paone said, "but I think, in this case, Harford residents will always see what their taxes have paid for."
Mike Burns is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Harford County.