Buyer sought to save tract from development

THE BALTIMORE SUN

If Harford Land Trust were shopping its recently purchased Otter Point Creek property in a want ad, it might read like this:

Seller offering waterfront property in southern Harford County, with main road frontage, quality farming soil, forest and wetlands -- conservation-minded buyers only need apply.

The group, which buys sensitive properties in Harford County in hopes of preserving them, is looking to find a buyer quickly after the county indicated last week that it plans to purchase an easement on the 45.5-acre property through its farmland preservation program.

David Miller, president of the trust, said the county's decision is good news, but a private buyer is needed to take advantage of tax credits and other incentives the program offers. The land trust is ineligible because it is a nonprofit group.

The tract of forest, wetlands and farmland, called the Parks property, is on Willoughby Beach Road in Edgewood. Without a conservation easement on it, it could become the site of more than a dozen homes, Miller said.

Good farming soil

William Amoss, administrator of the county's agricultural land preservation program, said the preservation board considered the property's good farming soil and proximity to high-intensity development in choosing the site, one of 20 farms proposed for inclusion in the county program in the coming year.

The property is important to preservationists and the county because it sits in a sensitive crescent that adjoins Otter Point Creek, part of the Winters Run watershed that empties into the Bush River.

The area, between U.S. 40 and Aberdeen Proving Ground's Edgewood Area, contains the Anita C. Leight Estuary Center, the Melvin G. Bosley Conservancy and the Chesapeake Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, one of three federal reserve sites in Maryland on the bay that are administered by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

"One of our objectives is to add this 45.5 acres contiguous to that preservation area," Miller said.

The estuarine research area includes a little more than 700 acres: the 93-acre Leight Park; the 350-acre Bosley Conservancy, which is owned by the Izaak Walton League; and 261 acres of open water, according to the "Winter's Run-Otter Point Creek Initiative," a county report on the area.

The report

The report was created in August by the county planning department to draw local and state attention to the acreage, which includes forested wetlands, tidal marshes and hardwood forests. Development presses in on this sensitive area from nearly all sides.

Edgewood sits in the heart of the county's designated growth area. The Willoughby Beach Road corridor gained about 220 households and nearly 400 people from 1990 to 2000.

According to last year's data from the county planning department, between 400 to 500 planned and potential housing sites remain to be developed in the 2 1/2 -mile-square-mile tract bounded by Edgewood Road on the west, Otter Point Creek to the north, Bush River to the east, and Aberdeen Proving Ground to the south.

This juxtaposition creates an opportunity for local, state and federal research into development's impact on sensitive environmental areas, said Arden McClune, chief of capital planning and development for the Harford County Department of Parks and Recreation.

"You're looking at green space and open space within pretty intensely developed areas," McClune said. "The development envelope is centered in and among some of our most sensitive environmental areas."

Harford Land Trust bought the Parks property for $450,000 from Gertrude Parks, Miller said. The county identified her tract and two neighboring properties, owned by her brother, Philip Welzenbach, and the Archdiocese of Baltimore, as being among "parcels of interest" for potential acquisition.

The state's fiscal constraints have squeezed funds for such purchases, McClune said.

For 2003-2004, she said, the county's funds from the state for preserving open space will be cut about 60 percent.

She said land trusts in Harford and other counties in the state are invaluable in helping to continue land preservation in tough economic times.

Miller said the trust is not in a position to continue to pay for the loan on the land. "There's so many ifs involved," he said of what the group would do with the land. "We don't have any definite plans."

Possible uses

The 45.5-acre tract could be home to several uses, he said. Part of it is leased for farming, he said. Forested areas, overgrown by invasive weeds, contain tulip poplars, cherry and other species that could be cut selectively and sold to help pay for the land, with perhaps a planned reforestation to follow.

Much of the tract lies within the Chesapeake Bay Critical Area, which is land within 1,000 feet of tidal waters. But the acreage closest to Willoughby Beach Road is zoned for residential housing, Miller said. "It could look like the development you see all along Willoughby Beach Road," he said.

The land is fairly flat and broad, bordered by a sweeping stand of old forest and green across the middle with maturing corn. A short walk through the overgrown woods leads to Otter Point Creek, which flows toward the Bush River and the Chesapeake Bay beyond.

"We're not going to allow it to be developed," Miller said.

Amoss, the preservation program chief, said the agricultural easement would require some sort of farming to continue on the land, but that could include many choices, from growing crops to adding to and managing the forest.

As Miller looked over the Parks property to one of several new neighborhoods going up across Willoughby Beach Road, he said, "In this heavily developed area, we like that this could be a prosperous farm."

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