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Harford's Fields of Dreams

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Harford County's long-term commitment to preserving farmland as an environmental amenity was reinforced by the County Council's recent approval of spending $7.4 million over the next two decades to purchase development rights of 3,115 acres on 10 farms.

The county's latest purchase of agricultural easements brings to 5,300 acres the amount of agricultural land protected from any type of development activity. A similar state farmland easement program protects another 8,000 rural acres in Harford County.

Since the Harford easement purchase program began two years ago, financed mostly by a new real estate transfer tax, landowner interest has grown. Nearly 150 farms have applied for or formally inquired about the program, which preserves acreage as farmland forever.

All told, some 30,000 acres of Harford farmland is under protection of state and county programs, 30 percent of active agricultural acreage in the county. About half that total is in a temporary holding pattern, in designated five-year preservation districts that are a pre-requisite to easement purchase by the Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Foundation.

That's an impressive achievement by any standard. Harford's total protected acreage may not be the largest among Maryland counties, but the degree of participation is outstanding.

While Harford farms have typically fared well in selection for the 16-year-old state easement program, it's the county program that is providing new impetus for rural landowners to sign up. There's no five-year wait (unlike the state plan), participants get significant local property tax breaks, and smaller farms are eligible. Both plans can spread out payments over 20 years.

The purpose of these programs is not to lock up land for unproductive use and to freeze farms as living history museums. Agriculture remains a vibrant sector of the county's economy, with $24 million in annual sales. At the same time, these open acres block development sprawl and provide visual relief for the community as a whole.

Farmland easement purchases, which run from $2,000 to $2,500 an acre, are a way to assist the farming economy, by paying for the relinquished development rights value of the land, while assuring that these privately owned properties will retain an open spaces aspect. They remain a fundamental part of Harford County's Rural Plan.

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