By Deborah Bowers
Harford County, Md. has dropped from 8th to 9th place in a national survey that ranks the nation’s most successful farmland preservation programs, and is the only county in the ranking that is not funding its program. York County, Pa. overtook Harford County by preserving 714 acres in its farmland program since last September, while the Harford program stood still in the same period. The survey is conducted each year by Bowers Publishing, Inc., of Street, Md., which publishes the online newsletter Farmland Preservation Report.
The survey rates 12 counties in four states that have exceeded 40,000 acres preserved. Five of the counties are in Maryland, and include Harford, Baltimore, Frederick, Carroll and Montgomery. Montgomery is in 2nd place, with 71,622 preserved acres.
Harford has 45,008 acres of farmland preserved through the state and county-operated farmland preservation programs, and in the state Rural Legacy Program and Maryland Environmental Trust.
The survey also examines whether a county protects agricultural lands through zoning restriction. Harford is listed as not having effective agricultural zoning. In Maryland only Baltimore and Montgomery are listed as having effective farmland protection through zoning.
Lancaster County, Pa., leads the nation in acres preserved for agricultural use, with 85,510 acres preserved through that county’s program and through the Lancaster Farmland Trust, a private nonprofit organization.
In York County, where development pressure from Harford and Baltimore Counties in Maryland has eaten away at the Piedmont countryside over the last 40 years, 240 farms and 37,654 acres are preserved to date. Recently local money committed to the program has dropped dramatically, however, to $100,000 last year and $200,000 this year. Administrator Patty McCandless said the program will receive $841,000 from the state and about $323,000 in federal Farm and Ranchland Protection Program funds.
Harford is the only county among the 12 surveyed that has zero local dollars to spend on new easements. Without local dollars to match, it will not be able to get significant funding from state or federal farmland protection programs. Most counties in the survey have more than $3 million to spend on farmland preservation.
Billy Boniface, president of the Harford County Council, said he worries that Maryland’s deficit will affect counties even more than it has already, with cutbacks on local school construction dollars and road maintenance. He said he is unwilling to borrow money in the bond market for farmland preservation.
“My concerns are, it’s very difficult to go off into the bond market in addition to the IPA payments, without another funding source,” Boniface said.
Other counties in Maryland budgeted funds for their farmland programs. Carroll County, which rose from 5th to 4th place in the ranking by preserving 4,178 acres over the last 12 months, has $13.7 million authorized by Carroll County Commissioners. Baltimore County has about $3 million allocated, and the Montgomery County Council authorized borrowing $4 million over the next two years for its farmland program, in addition to $2 million on hand, the survey found. Frederick County budgeted $3.8 million.
Harford County’s program was once the most active in the Report’s ranking, but the local program was set up to buy easements with installment purchase agreements (IPAs) and to run only on revenues from a local real estate transfer tax enacted in 1993. Those revenues are dramatically affected by washed up home sales. That leaves Harford’s once innovative program in the doldrums.
Harford’s local program, which began in 1993, is paying out interest annually to farmers who agreed to accept the installment payments, and who will receive a lump sum principal payment at the end of a 15 or 20-year period. The Harford real estate transfer tax is bringing in about $2 million annually – just enough to make the payments on existing IPA contracts with farmers. For the third year, Harford will not open an application round. There was only one state-purchased easement in the last 12 months, on a 82-acre farm, according to program director Bill Amoss.
Harford will have some preservation activity in the next few years through a $1.3 million grant to the Deer Creek Rural Legacy Area from the state’s Rural Legacy Program awarded last month. Most, if not all of that money will be spent to preserve agricultural lands, but only within the Deer Creek RLA which runs along the length of Deer Creek in northern Harford. In 2009, Harford’s gain in preserved acres came from settlements of the program’s last, and largest offer round in 2008.