Carroll officials might give boost to land preservation

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The Carroll County commissioners might triple to $3 million their commitment to agricultural land preservation during the next fiscal year, which begins July 1.

The money could help the county, long a state and national leader in farmland preservation, add almost 3,000 acres to the nearly 45,000 permanently protected from development, officials said.

"We are the best in the state with preservation," said Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge. "We want to add to our preservation districts."

The county will have 27 farm applicants next fiscal year, with a total of 2,820 acres, willing to participate in preservation programs. The state would provide the county about $400,000, possibly enough to purchase preservation easements on two of the properties.

The commissioners authorized yesterday $237,134 to purchase preservation easements on 70 acres of a dairy farm near the border with Pennsylvania.

The board also established two agricultural districts with a total of nearly 200 acres in the Westminster area. Both properties are among the 27 the county will try to place in preservation next year.

Maryland has about $6 million in bonds and funds from agricultural transfer taxes available statewide for fiscal 2006 preservation efforts, with Carroll's share estimated at about $400,000.

"We are committing almost 10 times what the state is putting up for this program," said Ralph Robertson, Carroll's agricultural land preservation specialist. "We have 27 applicants this year, all ranked and appraised by the state. We want to ramp up our commitment to get as many farms as possible in the program."

When state funds run out, the county could use its budgeted money to offer landowners as much as 70 percent of appraised value to preserve their farms. The county has a 70 percent cap on appraised value, while the state has no cap.

Offers could go to as many as 20 more farms, Robertson said. Those that do not make the cut can get in line for next year. Participation is voluntary.

"With our larger commitment [of funds], the state can continue to make offers for these farms, until the money runs out," said Steven D. Powell, the commissioners' chief of staff.

Before offering to place properties in permanent preservation, the state appraises their value and ranks farms for productivity, soil tests and location.

"The state saved us time and money by doing all the appraisals, the rankings and much of the administrative work," Robertson said.

Carroll County, which began an aggressive farm preservation program in 1978, is nearly halfway to its goal of 100,000 acres of permanently preserved land. Tight budgets in recent years have hampered state efforts in land preservation, and the costs have fallen on counties.

"The state is working with us in every way it can, but as long as it has budget pressures, this program will not be a high priority," Robertson said. "It will stay a high priority with us."

In fiscal 2005, about 3,000 acres were offered for preservation. A little more than 2,000 acres were accepted.

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