Land funds nearly dried up

The Baltimore Sun

Harford County has spent more than $20 million on land preservation this year, bringing to about 43,000 the number of acres in permanent protection programs, but the purchases have nearly exhausted all the funding reserves available to safeguard farms from development.

If the county is to reach its goal of 55,000 acres preserved by 2012, officials say they must find alternative means, possibly a free market approach such as Transfer of Development Rights, or TDR, to continue protecting land.

That program would allow a landowner to sell building lot rights to a developer who would, in turn, transfer the farmer's lots to a designated growth area.

"Basically, you are taking development rights out of a rural area and sending them to areas that promote growth," said William D. Amoss, manager of the county's agricultural preservation program.

The farm lots would be permanently preserved on the farm, the farmer would still work the land and development would occur in and around existing communities, which have utilities and infrastructure in place to handle more growth.

"TDRs are another tool that gives us more options and creates an open market," said County Council President Billy Boniface, owner of Bonita Farms, which was preserved more than 20 years ago.

After what many call a banner year for preservation, Harford could have less than $2 million in purchasing power in 2009, officials said.

"We decided to use all the financial reserves we had, so there could be significantly less funds next year," Amoss said. "We will have to be conservative next year. We may not be able to make any offers."

At least 20 farms remain on a waiting list for various preservation programs and Amoss' office has received an additional 10 applications for the next round of funding.

While the real estate market remains in a downturn and landowners' interest is high, this is the time to purchase easements that ensure land is preserved in perpetuity, Amoss said.

Much of preservation funding is generated by real estate transfer taxes, money paid at the time a property sale is settled, but the downturn in the housing market is leading to projections of far less revenue next year, officials said. Several council members said they are reluctant to dedicate more funds to preservation, when the county is coping with costly capital improvements.

"The transfer tax that is driving this initiative is throttling back," said Councilman James V. McMahan. "This program should pay for itself and we should use every nickel we get from the transfer tax for it. But we have to be prudent in how we proceed with preservation funding."

Councilman Dion F. Guthrie said that while he fully supports preservation efforts, the county should not go into debt to keep the program viable.

"Our job is to oversee spending," Guthrie said. "We have lots of funds to deal with and we can't steal from Peter to pay Paul."

Councilman Chad R. Shrodes, whose district includes much of Harford's farm community, said "We need to look for and explore other tools so that when funds are not there, we can continue to preserve large blocks of productive land."

TDRs may be the means to achieve preservations goals, even in a stalled economy, Boniface said. The county is working through a comprehensive zoning code rewrite this year that could include options for increased density in the county's designated growth areas.

The county's master plan includes several existing population areas with public utilities and the ability to handle growth, he said.

"But TDRs will only work when developers are willing to help us meet our preservation goals and farmers are made to understand they are not losing their land rights, but are selling them for a profit," Boniface said.

Harford faces increasing pressure for development because of the expansion at Aberdeen Proving Ground, officials said. The base is expected to grow by about 10,000 jobs in the next three years, as part of the nationwide military base realignment, known as BRAC.

That burgeoning growth will create development pressure, particularly in north Harford. Channeling development is always a challenge, especially when planners are increasing density in one area and trying to stem growth in another, Boniface said.

"With so many financial obligations and no other funding sources for preservation programs, TDRs will help us do a better job of saving land," Boniface said.

The arrival of thousands of BRAC families will likely revive the housing market and escalate land prices, Amoss said.

"Once BRAC is in full force and real estate turns around, we may lose our chance," he said. "But without a cash infusion or other sources, there is only so much we can do. The last thing we want is to have farms willing to preserve lost to development."

The county pays about half the market value for preserved acreage, as much as $13,000 per acre. State programs may pay slightly higher, depending on criteria such as size, soil quality and proximity to other preserved land.

"The key is funding," Amoss said. "We have to keep it up somehow and the more options we have the better."

mary.gail.hare@baltsun.

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