Preservation task force recommends more funds

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Without more money, Maryland's nationally recognized farmland preservation efforts are likely to fall as much as 40 percent short of the goal set two years ago to spare 1 million acres of fields and forests from being turned into houses and shopping centers, warns a legislative task force.

The task force -- which included farm interests, legislators, local officials and environmentalists -- issued its final report this week and called for a combination of borrowing and new taxes on land and land sales to close a projected $800 million gap between what funds are expected from current taxes and the goal.

"One way or another, we're not going to get where we're supposed to go unless something happens," said James Conrad, executive director of the Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Foundation, the state-funded entity that buys development rights from farm owners.

Rising real estate prices and the diversion of funds to cover the state's budget crisis have hampered the effort, the task force said. It called for stretching available funds by making installment purchases of farmers' development rights, and for targeting efforts on saving remaining valuable farmland in blocs designated as "priority preservation areas."

State officials, legislators and farm interests expressed sympathy for the preservation effort's difficulties, but few seemed willing to endorse new taxes.

"Obviously, the program has faced challenges over the years due to fiscal constraints, but Maryland remains a leader," said Shareese DeLeaver, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s press secretary. "As more funding becomes available and the economy improves we hope to do more in the future."

Sen. Ulysses Currie, a Prince George's County Democrat and chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee, said the recommendations were unrealistic in the state's current fiscal climate and that agricultural preservation would have to take a "back seat" this year.

The state is looking at future gaps between revenues and expenses of more than $1 billion. "With a billion-dollar problem and the other priorities of the state -- health care, school construction -- I doubt very seriously the legislature would look at increasing taxes for ag preservation," Currie said.

To help raise the extra $800 million expected to be needed over the next 16 years, the task force urged policy-makers to consider several real estate tax measures, including doubling the levy on sales of farmland for development and imposing a surcharge on nonfarmland in rural areas. The report also calls for closing a loophole that allows corporations to avoid paying real estate transfer taxes.

All the taxes proposed are directly related to the state's goal of saving prime agricultural land from sprawl development, Conrad said.

But some task force members were lukewarm about the tax proposals.

Valerie Connelly, chief lobbyist for the Maryland Farm Bureau, said farmers believe the effort needs a financial shot in the arm, but the group was not specifically endorsing any funding mechanism.

State Sen. Roy P. Dyson, a St. Mary's Democrat who served on the panel, said he has "reservations" about raising taxes for preservation, but he called on the governor to restore some of the funds already cut from the program.

"The bottom line is we ought to try to preserve ag land," Dyson said. "My area's just seeing incredible growth, and developments are going into what used to be farms."

Sun staff writer David Nitkin contributed to this article.

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