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Maryland counties might see less money for farm preservation

(Monday, Nov. 17, 2003 -- CropChoice news) --Lila Arzua, Washington Post, 11/16/03:

Drew Stabler is a fifth-generation Montgomery County farmer who, at 65, has no interest in retirement.

Still, he would like to cut back someday soon. And he doesn't want to sell a chunk of his land to developers who have devoured much of the county's agricultural acreage over the past 40 years.

So this year he made a deal with the Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Foundation, which bought an easement that will bar construction on 170 acres of his Laytonsville farm.

Nearly 60,000 acres in the county are protected from development by similar easements. And the money that farmers such as Stabler receive helps them pay off debts, buy equipment and keep agriculture alive in Montgomery.

"It would give us some cash to work with," said Stabler, who has spent long days this fall reaping soybeans and planting wheat. "It was a farm we didn't think would ever lend itself to development."

But Montgomery and other Maryland counties soon may be harder-pressed to preserve land like Stabler's. The administration of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), saddled with serious budget problems, is reviewing the land-acquisition program with an eye toward curtailing the purchase of easements.

Since 1977, more than 400,000 acres of agricultural and ecologically sensitive land in Maryland have been taken off the market by a group of specialized easement programs.

The effort reached its peak under former governor Parris N. Glendening (D). But recent hard times, for both the state and individual counties, are prompting cutbacks.

Although no final decisions have been made, Ehrlich aides said they intend to refocus preservation efforts on areas that directly affect the Chesapeake Bay.

Although the administration regards the prospective change as a shift in focus rather than a reduced commitment, the dollars available for easement initiatives are already in decline.

This year, funding for the agricultural purchase program was cut by half, from $18 million to $9 million. A special sale of bonds compensated for the decrease, but next year's cuts are expected to render the program all but dormant.

Other easement programs face similar reductions. They include Open Spaces, which concentrates on protecting land in recreational areas, and Greenprint, designed to preserving habitats near waterways.

The easement deals are attractive to many farmers. Prices vary, but usually end up somewhere between the land's full market value and agricultural value. As long as the land is not developed or subdivided, the state does not require that farmers actually grow anything on the easement.

"No one goes out and says you have to farm," said Jim Conrad, executive director of the Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Foundation.

Conrad said protection of cultivated land is important to the long-term health of two important agricultural sectors: grain and chicken farming.

"In order to maintain a viable agricultural industry, you have to have enough land and farming going on to make it work," he said.

Jeremy Chriss, who oversees appropriations for Montgomery's farmland preservation program, which relies heavily on state funding, said the cuts will have a significant effect. Several purchases are in the pipeline, he said, and if the state doesn't provide the funds, about 491 acres might be vulnerable to development. Other acquisitions are on hold.

"We are basically having to adjust our program in accordance with the state's policy," Chriss said.

The agricultural preservation programs have had a much smaller effect on adjoining Prince George's County.

"We don't have large areas that are logical preservation areas," said Fern V. Piret, the county's planning director. Nevertheless, in light of the state's new policies, local officials are having preliminary discussions about ways to preserve more land on a county level.

Stabler said he is pleased with his arrangement, and he hopes that other farmers get the chance to pursue similar deals.

"We're farmers and we want to continue to farm," said Stabler, who would like his nephews to continue the family tradition after him.

"What the next generation does is up to them. But it gives an opportunity for it to be farmed if someone wants to. If you sell to a developer, it's gone."

Source: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A46580-2003Nov15.html