Report urges new ways to save farmland


Carroll County must find new ways to preserve farmland or steady residential growth could jeopardize the future of agriculture and agribusiness, a Planning Department report says.

The 1995 Agricultural Working Paper recommends several initiatives, including two new residential zones and a real estate transfer tax devoted to farm preservation.

"Land is farming's lifeblood," the report says. "Without it, agriculture cannot be sustained, let alone perpetuated."

Carroll has been successful in preserving farmland -- it ranks third in the nation among counties -- but the effort must continue, the report says.

Of the county's total land area, 62 percent, or 192,000 acres, is zoned for agriculture. Of that, 21,000 acres have been permanently preserved.

Medford grain and beef farmer Melvin Baile Jr. said preserving farmland is a cost-effective and efficient way to control growth. If homes are not built, the county will not have to provide schools, roads and other services, he said.

Planners and politicians also must look at the larger picture, said Mr. Baile, chairman of the Carroll Agriculture Preservation Advisory Board. Maryland and other East Coast states have fertile ground, a plentiful water supply and are close to major population centers.

"And yet this is the ground we continue to mismanage and where we allow building everywhere," he said.

But K. Marlene Conaway, acting county planning director, said "Farming is no longer a countywide pursuit."

Statistics from the 1992 U.S. Census of Agriculture show that most farms are in the northwest part of the county, where the largest amount of farmland has been preserved.

From 1978 to 1992, Carroll lost 142 farms, from 1,222 to 1,080, census figures show.

The county has preserved land through the Agricultural Land Preservation Program and the Critical Farms Programs.

The Agricultural Working Paper, which is being studied by the county commissioners and the county planning commission, recommends that the county look for more ways to preserve farmland.

The county master plan, the blueprint for handling growth in the county, states that Carroll needs to preserve 100,000 acres to keep agriculture viable.

In the report, planners suggested the county commissioners consider:

* A Transfer of Development Rights (TDR) Program, which would allow farmers to sell the development rights to their land while keeping the property, thus profiting from development. With a TDR program, a farmer could sell development rights to a builder who planned a development in another area and wanted to build more homes than zoning allowed. The builder could transfer the farmer's lot rights to the other area.

If a TDR program were implemented, certain agriculturally zoned areas of the county could be rezoned to a Rural Reserve District. The base density allowed in the district would be one lot per every 20 acres. But if a developer purchased development rights, he could use them to increase the density to one lot per 3 acres.

The county also could create a Suburban Reserve Zone, where the base density would be increased to one lot per each 40,000 square feet, if TDRs were used.

The report did not recommend specific areas of the county for the new zones, Planner Gregg S. Horner said. It's possible they would be near towns, he said.

"It's a function of economics more than anything," he said.

Mr. Baile said TDRs are not a good way to control growth because there is no net loss of building rights and no reduction in needed services.

"There is a philosophy out there that TDRs would be the cure-all, and I don't think they are," he said.

* A real estate transfer tax of .5 percent to raise about $1.7 million per year so the county could buy development rights from farmers to preserve land.

The county must find ways to raise money because the state no longer contributes as much as it did in the 1980s.

Howard, Harford and Montgomery counties have implemented transfer taxes to help pay for agricultural preservation programs, the report says.

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