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Preserving farms worth the fight

ANN JONES STILL remembers the harassment and silent treatment from her schoolmates in Howard County in the 1970s.

The problem was her dad, Ridgely, a local dairy farmer. Elected as an Independent to the Howard County Council in 1971, he opposed the development of Columbia and favored agriculture.

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"He was one of the few politicians you run into who had the courage of his convictions," says James Clark, a retired state senator from Howard. "He wanted to keep the county as rural as possible, and some people thought he was backward for that."

Although Ann's brother still runs the family farm, the late Councilman Jones obviously lost his greater cause. Howard County is a study in how not to protect the rural landscape, its farmlands fallen like dominos to development.

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But he'd no doubt take satisfaction in what his daughter, a Rural Legacy coordinator with the private Valleys Planning Council, is up to nowadays in western Baltimore County.

There, in some of the finest rural landscapes Maryland has to offer, she works on one of the largest and most successful attempts to preserve private land anywhere on the East Coast.

Bounded roughly by Carroll County on the west and Falls Road to the east, and stretching north from Butler Road to Mount Carmel Road, the region encompasses about 32,000 acres. Piney Run meanders through the middle of it.

To date, 12,000 acres there - close to 20 square miles - have been permanently protected from development.

Even more extraordinary is that about 10,000 acres of this land lies in a contiguous block, an achievement unrivaled anywhere between Boston and Richmond, Va.

Preserving land in such unfragmented blocks, Jones explains, maximizes the odds of keeping farming viable and provides the best protection for wildlife.

And it is a pure joy to ride through, as I did recently with Jones on a spring day when cherry blossoms were giving way to dogwood, and tall tulip poplars flamed skyward with emergent green.

In the fifth-most-densely populated state in the Union, it's heartening to see the reverse of development's domino effect: The amount of preserved land has nearly tripled here since 1998.

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Heading north on Falls Road from Butler, we break out of a wooded stretch to a westward view of farm fields embroidered with hedgerows and knit together by wooded creek bottoms - the roll and texture and pattern of Central Maryland countryside at its finest.

Overlooking this scenery, a bit farther up Falls, is a farm with level fields covering nearly a square mile. "Developer's dream," Jones says, adding, "we recently protected this one, too."

Off Pleasant Meadow Road, black and white Holsteins graze on a glossy green slope, and down a little vale a huge oak overarches a red barn, the stuff of picture postcards.

Black Rock Road is a little scruffier, small farms with trailers where tenant farmers live. "It's a real working landscape, not just horse farms," Jones says.

A jewel is Trenton Road and the village of Trenton, surprisingly ungentrified. A landscape painter could work out of here for a lifetime and never need to travel far.

Trenton Church Road is a picturesque one-laner, so narrow you wonder where it goes - and, in fact, after a few miles it ends.

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Jones is taking you on a trip through more than landscapes. It's also a tour of the many tools Maryland and Baltimore County are using to protect our rural heritage.

On some farms, the owners have sold their development rights to the state's farm preservation program. Other landowners have donated easements, voluntarily restricting development, in exchange for tax breaks.

The big player in recent years has been the Rural Legacy program, funded with state bonds, which has pumped about $13.5 million into the Piney Run region since 1998. Baltimore County has added another $1.5 million.

All told, there are more than a half-dozen programs at work - county, state and private - to help willing donors or sellers preserve their land, Jones says.

"It's really the layering of all these programs together that has been so extraordinary," says Wally Lippincott, a Baltimore County agricultural preservation officer. Another reason for the success in the Piney Run watershed, Jones says, is the county's zoning that sets a 50-acre minimum lot size for residential building. Such protective zoning, she explains, dispels notions that a region is going to be the next boom town, and disposes people to preserve their land.

Now we are coming to "the view," around Mount Zion and Black Rock, the spot chosen by Gov. Parris N. Glendening in 1998 for a news conference to announce the Rural Legacy bonds.

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As far as the eye can see there's nothing here but countryside, most of it now protected. On a clear day, residents say they can see MedEvac choppers descending to the University of Maryland Medical Center, not far from the Inner Harbor. Jones says interest in preserving land here has spread to the point that "we'd have no trouble getting to 20,000 acres if the money were available."

Sadly, it's not, with the cutbacks in the state budget. Rural Legacy has just $5 million available for the entire state this year.

Restoring funding for open space is going to be a hard fight; but to whet your appetite for battle, drive or cycle this spring through the Piney Run region.

See what we've been buying. I don't think you'll be disappointed.


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