Gene and Louise Umbarger were feeling good about the recent decision to put their 165-acre Churchville farm into a county land preservation program.
Things got better when they found out this week that they might get an additional tax break for safeguarding their land from development.
The Umbargers' Woolsey Farm served as a backdrop this week for the announcement of a proposal to boost the tax credit the county extends to landowners who put their acreage in preservation programs. The credit would increase from $35 to $50 per acre, saving the average landowner about $900 annually in property taxes. More than 550 Harford farms currently in preservation would qualify for the incentive.
"I hope this encourages other farmers," said Gene Umbarger, who has spent all his 76 years on the farm and still works its fields. "It is another inducement to preserve land. Any cut in taxes helps raise a farmer's revenue."
County officials say the proposal is intended to maintain affordability for current Harford residents.
"Preserving [agricultural land] will preserve farmers," County Executive David R. Craig said. "Tax cuts make sense. This will help keep farms productive and make Harford a good place to live and work."
If the County Council approves the plan, the revenue reduction to the county is projected to be about $500,000 in the first year, county officials said.
Harford's land preservation efforts are regarded as among the top 10 in the nation. The county's budget this year includes $14 million for the programs.
Tom and Joe Galbreath of Street, who preserved 132 acres of their grain farms this year, said such tax credits are critical to the viability of farming.
"With the increases in assessments, taxes eat you alive," Tom Galbreath said. "These incentives are the only way to survive."
Ralph Robertson, program manager for preservation in Carroll County, called the credit "a great gift that will keep on giving." Carroll has no such tax credit, he said.
"This will absolutely bring farmers into the program," Robertson said. "Real estate taxes are taking a huge bite out of farm profits."
Harford's farm administration office processed 53 applications this year, the most since the program began 12 years ago. The county approved 13 of those applications for an additional 1,715 acres. The state's preservation program accepted nearly 700 acres in Harford.
The credit, if approved, should help keep landowners who were not selected this year interested in the program, Craig said.
The county's goal is to have 55,000 acres preserved by 2012, much of it surrounding the 50,000 acres in Harford's development envelope. About 45 percent of the Deer Creek watershed, which stretches from York County, Pa., to northeastern Baltimore County, is in preservation, but Harford's goal is 80 percent of that 171-square-mile area.
County Council President Billy Boniface said the county is competing with developers and coping with rising land values. The tax credit has remained at $35 an acre since the program began. The proposal includes a clause that will allow officials flexibility with the amount.
"We have to be aggressive, given the increasing land prices, and we have to look at these numbers constantly so that we can stay competitive," said Boniface, a lifelong farmer whose family farm was put into a state preservation program in 1986 for $400 an acre. This year's applicants were paid between $9,000 and $12,000 an acre.
The credit is another investment in farms, Boniface said, and another way to keep farms viable.
"This gives us an extra tool and helps us through the difficult times," Boniface said.
Councilman Chad Shrodes, who represents much of the farming community, said farmers, like most county residents, have seen their assessments rise by more than 20 percent.
"This credit will help put them back on par," Shrodes said. "We can also tweak the formula to reflect land values on the real estate market. Hopefully, the dollars we pay mirror the market."
INCENTIVE TO PRESERVE
The county government administration is proposing to increase the tax credit to farmers who have land in preservation programs from $35 to $50 per acre.
Farms in the program: 552
Acres preserved: 40,600
Acres pending in the county program: 1,715
Acres pending for state program: 580
Acres county hopes to have preserved 2012: 55,000
How the proposal would work: A typical 100-acre farm would be assessed at $406,790. Taxes due with no credit would be $4,857. With a $35 credit per acre, taxes drop to $1,357. The $50 credit would decrease the bill to $455 and save the farmer $902.
Fiscal impact to the county, if the increased credit is enacted: about $500,000.