Four of five members of Anne Arundel County's agricultural preservation advisory board might have unwittingly run afoul of county ethics law by participating in the land program, according to the Anne Arundel County Ethics Commission.
The advisory board's chairman, South County farmer Lewis McDonald, sold the county a protective easement on 92 acres in 1998, fetching him $279,300, while he was on the board.
Two other members, Manning Barksdale and Arthur Beaulieu, pay no property tax on farmland because it is designated an agricultural district - a necessary step before the government can buy an easement, or development rights.
A fourth member, Stephen D. Hopkins of Lothian, has applied to sell an easement on 78 acres he owns. He asked for the ethics commission's opinion, issued June 12.
The volunteer board makes recommendations on which properties should be classified as agricultural districts and which easements should be bought.
"Board members who are participants in the program may be in a better position to actively promote the benefits of the program and to set an example for other landowners," the commission wrote. "However, under the ethics law, it is simply not permitted."
The commission made no finding that members had misused their authority in any way, but said conflicts could arise, particularly if funds became scarce. Whether board members held an easement or applied for one while an active member, they "will be continuously involved in matters that may affect that member's interests," the commission said.
County officials are preparing to blunt the effect of the opinion by changing the ethics law. Without a special exemption, all but one of the members could be forced to resign, county officials acknowledge.
"One of the best marketing tools for our agricultural and woodland preservation programs is the active participation by the board members," said county spokesman John A. Morris.
The General Assembly modified state law after the State Ethics Commission concluded that members of the Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Foundation could not have a preservation district or easement.
County Executive Janet S. Owens, a South County Democrat, lists land preservation as one of her top priorities and has budgeted about $3 million next year.
Over the past 20 years, the county program and one run by the state have protected about 6,000 acres in Anne Arundel from development pressure, at a cost to taxpayers of $16.3 million. Most of the land is in rural South County.
In the past 18 months, the county has been negotiating with property owners to preserve 2,800 more acres, Morris said. The county typically pays 60 percent of market value for an easement, which works out to about $4,000 an acre.
In return, the property owner permanently forfeits the right to develop the land. The easement transfers if the land is sold.
An agricultural district designation means a property may not be subdivided for commercial or residential uses other than family conveyances for 10 years.
Wooded or agricultural parcels of at least 50 acres are eligible. The advisory board does not have final say in the state or county program. Under county law, its advice is supposed to be based on factors such as proximity to other protected areas.
While members are not paid, they are considered county employees and subject to county ethics law.