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County Comment: Recommendation for equity and land preservation in rural areas report

County Comment
Recommendation for equity and land preservation in rural areas report
by Norman Bassett
Washington County Public Information Officer

In its regular meeting on August 22, the Washington County Board of County Commissioners heard Land Preservation Planners Eric Seifarth and Holly Thibault report on Equity and Land Preservation in the rural areas.
Number one on the list of Commissioners' Goals for 2006 was development and review of recommendations for equity and land preservation in the rural areas by August.
A basic study of rural land values was presented, along with information regarding progress being made on a Transferable Development Rights program.
The report showed that land values in Washington County are increasing. Figures from the Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Foundation (MALPF) for land preservation easements increased from $2,150 per acre in Fiscal Year (FY) 2002 to $7,748 per acre in Fiscal Year 2006, which ended on June 30. That average amount doubled between FY 2005 and 2006.
In all Washington County farmers saw a grand total of $18.167 million spent on preservation over the past 4 years. From 2002 through 2006 a total of 5,431 acres of farmland were placed under preservation easement, the planners said, and there are a total of 20,200 acres in the easement programs.
The Agricultural Preservation Program encourages landowners to voluntarily enter into an Agricultural Land Preservation District. To receive County tax credits, the owner is required to commit the property to agricultural use only, for a period of 10 years. In return for that restriction, the landowner receives protection from nuisance complaints and becomes eligible to sell a Development Rights Easement. Under the program, the landowner retains ownership of property under easement.
Planners are leveraging seven pots of federal and state funds that are used with County matching funds. About $40 million has been utilized by the programs since their inception 17 years ago. Of that total almost half, some $18.5 million has been passed through the program between 2002 and 2006.
According to MALPF figures, Washington County received the second-largest funding amount for preservation in the state in 2006, from that organization. Recommendations presented by the planners included better measurement of equity, and development of priority easement ranking programs if there are areas with a disparity in values.
A projected date of 2020 to achieve a goal of 50,000 acres in permanent easements would need to be pushed back, given the spike in easement values. With those values averaging $7,748 per acre in today's dollars, and considering modest inflation, nearly a quarter of a billion dollars would be needed to reach that goal, Seifarth said..
Additional programs could be considered to assist in reaching the goal under the current time frame. One of those programs is Transfer of Development Rights. Selection of a consultant is now underway and when that process is complete, planners would work with the consultant, Agriculture Advisory Board, Real Estate community, landowners, developers, Water and Sewer Department, and other counties to design a TDR program to help preserve prime agricultural land, and to allow for possible Equity adjustments.
Following consultant selection, and given a Notice to Proceed in September, a Final Report and presentation of a plan to the Commissioners could be made by February, 2007.
The Agriculture Advisory Board voted to have staff continue its work towards exploring and designing a TDR program, the planners said.
Commissioners' President Snook commented that the comprehensive rezoning of the rural areas did not seem to have a negative effect on farmland values.
The Commissioners approved the recommendation that staff proceed with the TDR development program.

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