Howard County officials are moving to nearly triple - to $36.5 million - the amount the county is willing to spend on agricultural preservation and double the maximum price per acre it will pay to keep its remaining farmland from sprouting new homes.
County Executive James N. Robey said the changes are needed to draw participants into the preservation program in the face of spiraling land prices.
"We don't get many takers anymore" because of intense competition among developers for land, said Robey, who wants to double to $40,000 per acre the amount the county would pay for development rights on prime farmland.
Robey also is proposing to simplify the formula used to evaluate land eligible for the program, which is funded by 25 percent of the county's real estate transfer tax. That totaled about $8.5 million last year - twice the amount collected in 2000.
The moves, if approved by the County Council, also could help provide a way to preserve an 892-acre portion of Doughoregan Manor, the 300-year-old estate of Declaration of Independence signer Charles Carroll of Carrolton. A 30-year historic easement on that land is set to expire next year.
Several County Council members said they also favor paying more for farmland.
"I'm fully in favor of putting money in agricultural preservation, but you have to increase the price per acre," said council Chairman Christopher J. Merdon, an Ellicott City Republican who is running for county executive.
West Columbia Democrat Ken Ulman, another executive hopeful, also expressed interest.
"I am absolutely in support of effectively using our agricultural preservation dollars, especially when it comes to Doughoregan Manor," he said.
County Farm Bureau President Phillip Jones said there's not much land left in Howard that is eligible for farmland preservation, but added that Robey's move might help, particularly in preserving Doughoregan.
"I guess you have to be competitive with the real estate industry," Jones said.
Howard hasn't added a farm to its preservation program since 2002, said Joy Levy, the county's Agricultural Preservation Administrator, and state officials have threatened to drop the county from a separate state preservation program if progress isn't made by June. Last summer, county planning director Marsha S. McLaughlin proposed restricting rural development by using zoning changes, partly to satisfy the state, but united opposition from landowners killed the idea.
Critics say the county's problem began decades ago when Howard failed to follow nearby jurisdictions and enact large lot zoning to protect farms.
Baltimore County allows one house per 50 acres in rural farm zones and Montgomery County uses 25-acre farm lots to discourage development and keep farmland prices down. Montgomery County hasn't paid more than $8,500 an acre, said agricultural preservation administrator John Zawitoski.
But Howard's most restrictive zone is 4.25 acres per house, and with new detached homes selling above $700,000 each, developers have priced the county program out of the market.
"They have some of the worst zoning in the state. That is unacceptable," said Dru Schmidt-Perkins, executive director of 1000 Friends of Maryland, a private preservation group. Still, she said, "increasing the amount paid per acre is critical." Perkins said that the county "should be commended" for taking the initiative.
Mary Catherine Cochran, president of Preservation Howard County, a private conservation group, said she hopes the changes will provide a way to preserve Doughoregan, though not all of the land there is eligible for agricultural preservation. She called Robey's proposals "very good news" for helping the county meet overall preservation goals.
The Colonial-era estate in western Ellicott City includes a 20-room mansion dating from 1730 and 30 other historic buildings still owned and occupied by the Carroll family.
The Carrolls plan to raise more than $20 million for renovations and repairs, and want to preserve family ownership - a goal that could involve large-scale home development on some of the land.