Land trusts let us protect our future


EVERY THURSDAY, I drive my daughter from our house in Owings Mills to her piano lesson in Hunt Valley. We drive along Broadway and Padonia roads, and every week, I arrive at the teacher's doorstep filled with the same feeling of irretrievable loss that I felt when our puppy died.

In this case, the loss is one of the natural world, a loss of majestic old trees, rolling farmland, wild flowers, bird life and animal life. The landscape literally changes from week to week, as there are fewer trees and more zoning notices with their ominous orange flags every time we pass through. Like an advancing army, this particular development is pushing closer and closer to our neighborhood.

Even more disturbing, this corridor is not alone. No matter where I go in Baltimore, Carroll, Howard, or Anne Arundel counties, I see fields or back lots measured and flagged for the buildings soon to come.

The forces that spawn development are complex and interrelated, and it is not my point here to denounce developers or the people who demand what the builders supply. But, the perspective afforded by this weekly drive through what, until quite recently, was a bucolic slice of Maryland countryside is one that loudly begs the question: Have we been good stewards of the Earth?

As a parent, I find is difficult to defend or even adequately explain why bricks and concrete are an improvement over a sweeping green field and the ecosystem it supports. And I worry how children will learn to value nature if they rarely see it, save a row of pine trees and squares of sod put in by the developer's landscape contractor.

It is tempting to wallow in despair, and there are times when I feel truly scared and depressed about the legacy of cement we are leaving the next generation. But being a parent has taught me the importance of acting, not wallowing, if only to model responsible citizenship for our children. So, in asking the question, what can one person do to stem the tide of unchecked development, I find myself returning to the concept of land preservation trusts. A few years ago, we put our 7 acres of land in trust. As a result, we take some comfort in knowing that the advancing bulldozers must stop at the foot of our drive.

In Maryland, land trusts are generally formed under the auspices of the Maryland Environmental Trust (MET), created by the General Assembly in 1967. Its mandate is to protect Maryland's farmland, forests, waterfronts, wildlife habitat, and properties with scenic features.

Conservation easements are the MET's primary vehicle for protecting properties from the threat of development. Most people know that a conservation easement is an agreement between a landholder and the trust, ensuring that a property will not be developed beyond an agreed limit.

What some people may not realize is that the agreement can create significant income, estate, and property tax benefits for the landholder without limiting one's rights of ownership, occupancy, and privacy. MET is particularly interested in land parcels which protect valuable ecosystems, preserve farmland or support historic buildings. Another little-known fact: while it is true that MET generally prefers parcels of 25 acres or more, neighbors may join forces to create a meaningful sweep of green and apply for an easement together.

Landowners with fewer than 25 acres may also be surprised to learn that they, too, have recourse. Three programs in particular are Noteworthy:

First, there is the Land Preservation Trust which offers tax deductions for parcels of land often no more than a few acres in size, depending on their location and ecological significance. Second, the Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Program provides the alternative to landholders who are willing to sell their development rights to the state to preserve their farm. This is called a "Purchase of Development Rights" program (PDR).

Finally, the Rural Legacy Program is a new statewide initiative, which, with an approved budget of $100 million dollars, expects to protect 47,000 acres over the next few years. Approximately 4,700 of these acres will be in Baltimore County. In northern Baltimore County, the Piney Run Rural Legacy Area expects to protect 17,000 acres of contiguous land by the year 2010.

The first question for any interested property owner is, do I have any development rights on my property? In other words, could another house (or two or 10) be built on my property? If the answer is yes, then the landowner has the potential to donate those rights, thereby protecting the land from any future development, as well as to earn a tax cut equal to the income forfeited. The basic formula is simple: the value of one's land if it is developed minus the value if it is not developed equals the deduction one incurs.

While the formula is simple, the process is less so, and it would be misleading to suggest that one can protect one's land and earn a handsome profit, all with a minimal effort. The process can be slow and costs some money up front (for appraisers, administrative fees, etc.). Also, some of the programs like Rural Legacy and the agricultural preservation programs have long waiting lists and a limited budget. But for the motivated homeowner who cares about the future of Maryland, the effort and the wait are well worth it. And, if more and more landowners apply to these programs, their budgets may increase accordingly.

Since inception, MET has issued 513 easements, totaling more than 67,000 acres. Other PDR programs have added another 161,000 acres. That is the good news. Here is the bad: more than 15,000 acres a year are lost to development. And the future looks even more alarming. By the year, 2020, it is projected that more than 600,000 acres could be lost to development.

Now is the time to act is now. If you have a view you cherish, if you live near a now untouched field or forest, if you are considering selling a parcel of land because "the whole neighborhood's selling out," contact the MET or the Department of Environmental Protection and Resource Management first and see what your options are. When a landowner puts his or her land in trust and reaps a financial benefit, that reward is, to my mind, both welcome and secondary. The primary reward is the certainty that one has made a positive and lasting difference to the earth and its inhabitants. This conservation act says to our neighbors, our children, and our legislators: green, open spaces matter, and we have an obligation to protect and cherish them. As I have learned after two years of piano lessons, it only takes days to destroy a field or forest, and what follows is frighteningly permanent.

Elizabeth Garland Wilmerding is a board member of the Valleys Planning Council, a community-supported land-preservation organization in Baltimore County.

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