Open-land programs might be squeezed

THE BALTIMORE SUN

There are days when William Amoss -- Harford County's farm preservation chief -- feels as if he alone is fending off sprawl. At the moment, he's trying to protect a 50-acre cattle farm in the Thomas Run Valley from being subdivided for single-family homes.

"This property will go one direction or the other," he said, referring to the farm's uncertain future.

Amoss prefers farming, but he worries that Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s proposal to cut some state funding for land preservation could mean that the cows, and their pasture, will be replaced by houses.

These are anxious times for Maryland's conservationists and local land preservation officials.

Not only has Ehrlich succeeded Parris N. Glendening, a champion of open space and anti-sprawl programs. But Ehrlich also has proposed cutting two Glendening-era programs aimed at buying up large tracts, and he seeks to use almost all the estimated $116 million in real estate tax revenue -- funds that are supposed to be earmarked for preservation -- to plug a budget hole of about $1.3 billion projected for the next fiscal year.

Last year, Glendening and legislators took money from real estate taxes -- $58.4 million -- and Ehrlich has proposed selling bonds to help fund preservation.

Still, conservationists and local officials worry that cuts could threaten Maryland's reputation as a national leader in land preservation.

"This [budget] will have a major impact on ... land preservation," said Theresa Pierno, Maryland executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, which has done an analysis of the governor's budget proposal.

Administration officials defend the budget and note that Ehrlich is boosting funding to create new parks and preserve farm land.

"Governor Ehrlich is pro-environment, and he is pro-open space," said Neil L. Bergsman, state director of budget analysis.

He added, however, that Ehrlich was forced to sacrifice some programs to preserve funding for "critical" items such as health and education.

Raiding the fund

Ehrlich is not the first elected official to propose redirecting revenue from the 33-year-old real estate transfer tax, which targets home sale transactions.

Last year, Glendening and legislators took about a third of what was available through the real estate transfer tax and then limited the amount of money that could be spent on open space in the 2003-2004 budget year.

Legislators also raided the fund from 1990 to 1997, according to state budget analysts.

The state mainly preserves land through four programs: Program Open Space, Rural Legacy, GreenPrint and the Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Fund.

Two preservation funds -- Program Open Space and the Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Fund -- would receive more money under Ehrlich's spending plan than they are under Glendening's final budget, which covers spending through June 30.

Under Ehrlich's budget, total funding for Program Open Space, including federal money, would rise from $27 million to $41.5 million.

The agricultural fund, including federal and local money, would increase from $17 million to $33.6 million.

Established in 1969, Program Open Space preserves land for ball fields, trails and golf courses.

The state's farm land preservation fund, set up in 1977, encourages farmers or their heirs to sell development rights to local governments instead of home builders.

But the Ehrlich administration has slashed two programs started under Glendening that target large tracts of land -- Rural Legacy and GreenPrint. Under Ehrlich's budget, total funding for Rural Legacy and GreenPrint -- now at $21 million and $12 million, respectively -- would drop to $5 million apiece.

Pierno said that Ehrlich's proposal to significantly decrease funding for the two programs represents a "major policy shift" away from the protection of large blocks of open space.

"They have almost zeroed it out," she said, referring to budget proposals for Rural Legacy and GreenPrint.

The latter program is scheduled for a complete phase-out in the 2004-2005 budget year.

Pierno said that if federal and local funds are excluded, total state support for land preservation drops under Ehrlich's budget by $3.3 million, to $68.2 million.

Moreover, that recommended funding level hinges on the sale of bonds and the approval of Ehrlich's proposal for slot machines at race tracks.

Unsustainable levels

Bergsman, Ehrlich's budget analysis director, said that local officials and land conservationists should have expected cuts.

"The levels at which open space acquisition has been funded in recent years is just unprecedented," Bergsman said, noting that some localities have yet to spend money they received for preservation in previous years.

"No one could have expected those very high spending levels to be sustained," said Bergsman.

Still, local officials report that without a steady influx of state money to support parkland acquisition and woodland preservation, they might have to scale back local programs. For example:

In Worcester County, on the Eastern Shore, officials depend on Program Open Space funds for nearly 100 percent of their annual park and playground funding, said Sharon DeMar Reilly, director of recreation and parks. "You can see how vital and significant it is to us," she said.

In Harford County, where officials have targeted 16,000 acres of farm and woodlands for permanent preservation, a reduction in Rural Legacy funds would have a chilling effect, Amoss said. He added that besides the 50-acre cattle farm, two other farms, both near contested housing tracts, could be lost to suburban sprawl.

In Howard County, officials said construction of Western Regional and Meadowbrook parks could be delayed because of competition among jurisdictions for Program Open Space funds. (Recently, Ehrlich recommended phasing out a popular playground renovation program, and his budget secretary suggested that community groups apply for Program Open Space funds to do such work.)

Anne Arundel and Baltimore county officials declined to comment on what projects could be delayed or scrapped.

They said they are waiting for the General Assembly to adopt a final budget.

'Demand for land'

"There is a lot of demand for land from the development community out there," said Edward Thompson Jr., senior vice president of the American Farmland Trust, a Washington-based organization fighting the proposed funding cuts. "If I had my druthers, I would rather see the budget increasing somehow. ... Once you lose farms, they are gone forever."

Some argue that money taken from the designated fund -- which has grown in recent years because of a spike in home sales -- should be returned when the state's fiscal outlook improves.

"We understand that times are tough and the state needs cash," said Thomas Donlin, an Anne Arundel County recreation and parks official. "But when times are better ... let's see if we can't get that money back."

Lean years ahead

Bergsman warned that local officials and environmentalists shouldn't count on the state's budget situation improving soon.

"From my point of view, we will have tight budgets through 2008," he said. "So I think if they are going to wait until times are flush, they may be waiting a long time."

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