A pioneer in trying to save farms from development, Howard County has since become a leader in the opposite direction - losing a greater share of its farmland over the past decade to homes, malls and highways than any other county in Maryland.
Sandwiched between Baltimore and Washington, once-bucolic Howard has become so thoroughly suburban in the past 25 years that state planners now question the value of investing more public funds in buying up the remaining farmers' development rights.
"It does no one any good to continue a program and recertify it if it isn't achieving the goals and objectives," state Planning Secretary Audrey E. Scott said in a recent interview.
Howard officials say development has gobbled up much of the remaining farmland, and land prices have climbed so high that many farmers who haven't already done so are unwilling to sell their development rights.
But state planners contend that the county's long-standing unwillingness to restrict housing development in its rural western region has undermined an otherwise laudable preservation effort, the second-oldest in the nation.
The county could lose more than half of the state funds it receives for farmland preservation - nearly $1 million in 2003 - if its program is not approved in February by state planners and the Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Foundation. The foundation purchases conservation easements from farmers limiting future development of their property.
State officials say no decision has been made on whether to renew certification of Howard's farmland preservation program. But the problems with Howard's effort are not unique. State planners have recently faulted at least two other counties - Anne Arundel and Cecil - for allowing housing to sprawl into prime farming areas targeted for preservation with public tax dollars.
"We have got to get serious about protecting these rural areas," said Russell B. Brinsfield, director of the Maryland Center for Agro-Ecology, a think tank on the Eastern Shore dedicated to supporting the "working landscapes" of the state's farming and forestry industries.
Brinsfield's center recently released a study conducted for it by the Maryland Department of Planning, which concluded that farmland preservation efforts in the state are threatened by many counties' permissive zoning laws and by highway projects that increase development pressure on rural areas.
The state has spent more than $500 million since the late 1970s to buy up development rights on about 400,000 acres of farmland statewide. Former Gov. Parris N. Glendening made preservation of rural land a pillar of his Smart Growth policies, which attempted to use state funding to steer new growth to existing communities.
Land preservation has practically stalled in the past few years, however, as tax revenue ostensibly earmarked for that purpose was diverted to cover the state's budget deficits.
The state planning department's recent report estimated that the state needs to spend another $2 billion over the next 17 years to reach its goal of buying up development rights on 1 million acres of farmland statewide.
But state planners caution that more money alone to buy development rights won't keep farmers on the land if homes are allowed to encroach on cornfields and pastures.
As farmland becomes increasingly fragmented, conflicts erupt over slow-moving farm equipment on increasingly crowded roads, and over pesticide spraying and farm noises and smells. Businesses linked to farming also disappear as the number of farms dwindles.
At least half the state's counties lack meaningful limits on housing development in rural areas, according to state planners. While Baltimore County limits construction in its prime agricultural areas to one house per 50 acres, Howard, for instance, allows one dwelling per 4 1/4 acres - or more, if the homes are clustered together.
Cecil's farms are being carved up into four-acre home lots, according to state planners. In Anne Arundel, rural zoning that limits housing to one dwelling per 20 acres has been undermined by what officials say is widespread abuse of a provision allowing farmers to sell off smaller home lots for family members.
"If local zoning allows excessive housing on agricultural land, we cannot preserve farming no matter how much money we spend on easements," Scott said in a statement accompanying the report.
Scott stressed that local and state officials need to cooperate to make the farmland preservation effort succeed. Regulating land use remains the purview of local officials, she said, but she and others in her department have been urging officials in booming Howard, Anne Arundel and Cecil counties to tighten zoning laws to reduce the number of new homes that could be built in rural areas, especially those where some farmland already has been preserved.
"There's ways to do it," Scott said of limiting development in farming areas. "It's whether or not there's the will to do it."
'Unfair tax on farmers'
Many local officials have balked at clamping down on rural development, however, in large part because of protests from farmers, who say that restrictions would reduce the value of their land.
"It's an unfair tax on farmers," Valerie Connelly, director of government relations for the Maryland Farm Bureau, said of proposals to downzone, or reduce the number of houses that could be built on farmland.
Though some farmers favor restrictive zoning to keep farming viable, she said, many want to retain the option of selling their land at top dollar to developers. Their land is their retirement fund, she noted, or their collateral for borrowing to keep the farm going.
Howard officials say down-zoning is out of the question there now.
Challenges in Howard
"It was attempted twice a long time ago, and it failed," said Joy Levy, administrator of Howard's agricultural land preservation program. Now, little farmland remains that is not already preserved or committed to development, she said.
And the price of land has skyrocketed, to the point that the county has had a hard time attracting applications from farmers willing to sell their development rights.
The county has been able to lock up a few hundred acres in the past few years by allowing developers to shift the development rights from farms to elsewhere in the county.
But no farmers have sold their development rights directly to the county or state lately - even though Howard raised what it would pay under its own preservation program from a maximum of $7,600 an acre to $20,000.
Levy said Howard County now focuses on helping farmers maintain their livelihood, switching in some cases from traditional grain and livestock farming to pick-your-own produce operations and riding stables, which are more compatible with the encroaching suburbs.
Loophole in Arundel
Anne Arundel County limits housing in its largely rural southern area to one home per 20 acres, but allows farmland to be carved into two- and five-acre plots for sale to family members. That provision has been abused over the past decade, said Betty Dixon, the county's land use and environment coordinator.
At the urging of state planners and some local residents, county planners last year proposed eliminating the "family conveyance" loophole. Councilman Edward R. Reilly, who represents the southern part of the county, has proposed allowing only families that have held the land since 1981 to carve up their farmland.
"I think this is a very reasonable compromise," Reilly said.
County officials say they have no idea how many homes have been carved from farmland in southern Arundel, nor can they project how many would be allowed under Reilly's "legacy" amendment.
But Joan Turek, chairwoman of the South County Exchange, a community group, predicted that, based on her analysis of county property records, the proposal would allow up to 1,700 new homes, double the number there now.
Suburb vs. rural
"A suburb is a suburb no matter who lives there," she said, "and suburban-like developments do not belong in rural areas that presume to create an environment friendly to the agricultural industry and supportive of other rural resources and industries."