With land prices rising and farm acreage declining, Howard County is set to spend $15 million to preserve between 2,500 and 3,000 acres from development.
If the County Council approves the spending with the adoption of the county budget May 22, Howard would almost surely reach the goal it set in 1990 to preserve 30,000 acres from development.
About 21,000 acres are protected in the county through a variety of programs, which will also be used to preserve the 30,000 acres. In 1989, the county set aside $55 million to purchase development rights, expecting the money to last a decade. However, when the funding ran out in 1997, the county suspended the program to build reserves again.
The new infusion of dollars could allow the county to begin accepting applications for the program as early as July, said William Pickens, program administrator. About 15,000 to 20,000 acres of farmland remain unprotected, he added.
"We will stagger it out over time," he said. "I will not know how far I can stretch that money until I get applications."
Despite the hiatus, Howard has had one of the most successful farm preservation programs in the United States, Pickens said.
"We have committed more county dollars than any other county in the country," he said.
The county has preserved 12,800 acres of farmland since starting the program in 1984.
"That's a lot of land. I think it will make a large difference," said County Councilman Allan H. Kittleman, a western county Republican who represents most of rural Howard. "There are people out there who want to farm but have found that farming is not profitable."
By selling development rights, he said, "they might be able to stay on their farms and pass them along to their children."
Together with the overall planning policy of keeping water and sewer pipes out of the western county, the preservation effort will help limit development in rural areas, officials hope.
Howard's population grew faster than any other jurisdiction in Maryland during the 1970s and 1980s, and the county was second only to Calvert County in the 1990s.
But county officials expect a slowdown to begin after 2010. By that time, they expect all the large parcels of land zoned for major development will be spoken for. As declining land availability increases pressure and prices for buildable lots, the preservation program will help remove rural land from the development pool.
The money, which comes from transfer taxes on county real estate sales, is paid to farmers in installments over 30 years. The farmers retain title and use of the land, but easements are placed on the properties to prevent them from being developed.
In the past, the county paid farmers an average of $5,000 an acre for their development rights, but as land supplies dwindle, that amount is expected to climb to $6,000 an acre, county planners said.
To qualify for the program, a farm must be at least 100 acres or adjacent to an existing agricultural preservation parcel. Productive farms with prime soils are given priority.
While the state offers a similar agriculture preservation program, it has not purchased easements in the county since 1988 because it is unable to pay the high prices Howard properties command.
Sun staff writer Larry Carson contributed to this article.