- Associated Press - Sunday, November 23, 2014

HAGERSTOWN, Md. (AP) - Washington County is more than halfway to a goal set around 25 years ago to preserve 50,000 acres of “prime and productive” farmland, including woodland, said Eric Seifarth, rural preservation administrator for Washington County government.

That goal was set by the Board of Washington County Commissioners with the support of its Agriculture Advisory Board to save the minimum amount of farmland needed to sustain the agricultural industry in the county, Seifarth said.

If the amount of farmland gets too low, there won’t be enough business to keep support services alive, such as agricultural equipment dealers and seed companies, Seifarth said. Without those support businesses, farmers would have to drive farther for materials and services and might reconsider their occupation.

That would not only affect the farmers’ livelihoods, but the amount of locally grown food available, Seifarth said.

Jeff Semler, the agricultural educator for the University of Maryland extension office, said there’s still a lot of work to do to preserve farmland in the county.

Semler said he hates to say the preservation effort is “on pace,” but many people don’t think about preserving farmland until an issue arises that brings it to their attention.

If parents die and one child wants to continue farming and the other wants to sell the land for the highest dollar, one way for the farming child to buy out the sibling is to sell easement rights to protect the property, Semler said. Or if the parents want to retire and the child wants to take over the farm, selling development rights - which are a protective easement measure - can help the child buy the parents out of the farm and provide the parents with some retirement income, he said.

The economy also has played a role in the pace of preservation, Semler said.

One of the main programs used to fund farmland protection uses revenue from the transfer tax.

The downturn in the economy has provided a “good news, bad news” situation where not as many houses are being built so not as much farmland is being taken, but the housing industry isn’t doing well enough to generate more transfer tax revenue to pay for easements, Semler said.

“I don’t know which is better,” said Semler, but “saving farmland is the ultimate goal.”

There are several active significant farmland preservation programs for county land as well as some smaller programs and programs that are inactive due to lack of funding that have protected agricultural land, Seifarth said.

Most of the programs work by either paying the property owner or having the property owner donate rights to the land in exchange for federal tax credits or deductions, Seifarth said.

The main program is the Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Program, referred to as MALPP, that started in 1977 and has protected 12,607 acres in the county so far, Seifarth said. This program has a sizable waiting list for participation, he said.

This program purchases permanent easements from the land owner so the land can never be developed, no matter who owns it. The price of the easement is determined by subtracting the agricultural value of the property from the full fair market value for the land, or what it could bring on the development market, Seifarth said.

This Maryland Department of Agriculture program, administered by the county, focuses more on production agriculture with higher quality soils, he said. In this county, that is typically dairy farms and orchards, but includes other commodity operations.

After the annual state funding for those easements is exhausted, the state and county share the cost of subsequent easements for the year with the state paying 60 percent and the county funding 40 percent, Seifarth said. The main funding source is the agricultural transfer tax, which is paid whenever a property is “developed out of agriculture into something else,” Seifarth said. A portion of that tax revenue goes to the state and part of it goes to the county, which uses most of its share to fund the county’s 40 percent cost for an easement.

The Rural Legacy Program is a Maryland Department of Natural Resources program that began in 1997 and focuses on protecting farmland, including wooded areas and sensitive areas such as stream buffering, Seifarth said.

So far, it has protected 5,074 acres in the county through easements.

Land eligible for this program is restricted to an area that runs roughly from the Appalachian Trail west to the C&O; Canal, and from the Rohrersville area north to about the Boonsboro area.

The land must have strong agricultural value, have an historic component, have strong environmental features that need protecting, and have the ability to be developed, Seifarth said. All four components are needed. If the property is land-locked and unattractive for development, it’s not going to be eligible, he said.

Other factors to be considered, though aren’t necessary, are whether the land is home to endangered species, the quality of the soil, and whether the land protects a viewscape, such as a view from Antietam National Battlefield or the scenic view from Maryland 67, he said.

Most of this program is funded through Program Open Space, Seifarth said.

The county’s Installment Payment Program began in 2004, securing its first easement two years later, Seifarth said.

The program is fully funded by a piggyback tax on the real estate transfer tax, which taxes any land sold for any reason in the county, he said.

The first $400,000 from that piggyback tax, every year, is used for this program. That cap on funding and the fact that the installment program pays the landowner 10 percent of the easement cost each year for 10 years, limits participation, Seifarth said.

Soon the first batch of easements will be paid off and county officials will start talking to more property owners in late 2015 about participating in the program, he said.

The county approaches property owners that are on the waiting list for the MALPP program because that state program has already paid for the land appraisals, Seifarth said.

The installment program has saved almost 1,113 acres through nine easements.

The state’s fairly new Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program has preserved almost 316 acres, while the county’s Agricultural District Program has preserved 17,828 acres.

Through the Ag District program, landowners commit to not developing their land for 10 years in exchange for a county property tax credit on the agricultural portion of their land. Most people who participate in this program end up pursuing a permanent easement on the property, Seifarth said.

Almost 6,540 acres have been protected through a variety of other easement programs, including the Maryland Environmental Trust.

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