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Farmers face developing dilemma as rising land values push taxes up; Preservation option can allow families to stay in agriculture


Friends and family members remember former western Howard County resident Adelaide Close Riggs as a woman who appreciated the beauty of her 489-acre horse farm in Daisy.

She loved it so much, they say, she offered 283 acres as an environmental easement in December 1994, in part to eliminate any prospect that it would be developed.

Since her death Dec. 31, developers, county officials and residents alike have wondered whether her land partner, Dr. Michael Cavey, would grant an easement on his 206 acres or become one of the many neighboring property owners to develop this traditionally rural part of the county.

"I'm going to do everything I can to carry out [Riggs'] wishes," Cavey said, indicating that his land won't be turned into subdivisions.

"It is a horse farm -- a highly developed horse farm," he said.

The amount of land in rural western Howard protected in preservation programs totals 20,000 acres, and county officials say they have received applications encompassing another 493 acres.

How much more acreage will be preserved is anyone's guess. Economic pressures drive many farmers to consider selling to developers for top dollar. But putting land into agricultural preservation programs yields tax savings that can help farmers stay in business.

While Riggs, 90, decided long ago to preserve her property, two neighbors sold some of their land for housing.

"Almost everyone appreciates working farms, but I don't think farming is profitable anymore," said Marge Sissel, whose husband, Lambert, devel- oped 40 acres of their land off Union Chapel Road in Woodbine while preserving 100 acres.

Four kinds of land preservation programs help maintain open space, protect the environment and assist farmers. Gov. Parris N. Glendening's Smart Growth program, intended to prevent sprawl, is fueling efforts to restrict development in rural areas like western Howard, as is concern about the costs of development.

Covering costs

While new homes generate taxes, the revenue often isn't enough to pay the costs of roads, schools, police and water and sewer lines needed to serve residents.

"Studies have shown that the cost of providing community services such as police and schools is considerably more expensive in rural areas than in suburban areas," said William T. Pickens, agricultural preservation program administrator for the county Department of Planning and Zoning. "Think of the extra gas spent on sending police out there or picking up children for school."

But property owners can't always afford to continue farming or pay increasing property taxes on land that becomes ever more valuable because of its development potential.

Undeveloped farmland in western Howard is valued at about $10,000 an acre, according to Pickens. After it is placed in preservation, the value drops to as little as $3,000 an acre, yielding a potential big tax savings.

One man's solution

Lambert Sissel said that preservation is the only way he can pass his family's land -- and business -- to one of his sons. Putting the land in agricultural preservation will decrease its value and the taxes. Land in Howard County is too expensive for young farmers like his son to buy, he said.

"If I keep it, I don't have any retirement money," Sissel said. "If I sell it, I don't have anything for my sons to stay in the farming business. I am reducing the value so he can buy it from me."

Sissel said that the money he makes by selling the farm to his son will go toward his retirement.

County officials are finishing a six-month study of development issues throughout the county, the first step in creating a general plan for Howard for 10 to 20 years.

Among the issues the county is looking at are roads, sewers, water and agricultural land use.

Mildred Doane, who has lived in the Daisy community for 26 years, hopes more land will be preserved.

"I think people feel that the farmland is going too quickly. Some of those farms should be kept for food," she said. "It is sad to see the area changing so quickly."

Riggs has done her part to keep land in farming.

She "was a preservationist and has always been someone who loved her land," said Ellen MacNeille Charles, her daughter. "She wanted to keep it in its natural state."

Pub Date: 2/01/99

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