ANNAPOLIS – Maryland farms operating on state protected farmland for 25 years will begin to have the opportunity to buy back permanent development rights in two years.
But that doesn’t mean any buy-backs will occur, farmland preservation officials said this week.
The law that in 1977 created the Maryland Agricultural Preservation Foundation to preserve farmland and control sprawl makes termination very difficult.
Farms would need to prove that profitable farming of any crop is no longer feasible and then meet strenuous local and state approval.
The chances of buy-back are “slim to none,” said Craig A. Nielsen, an assistant attorney general and counsel to Maryland’s Department of Agriculture, which operates the foundation.
“We believe it’s going to be an extraordinary event that allows someone to get out of this program,” he said.
Nielson attended this week’s meeting of the Board of Public Works, the body that approves all state spending, to assure the board that buy-back chances are remote.
The foundation buys permanent rights for commercial or residential development on farmland in exchange for an easement. The payments compensate the owner for the difference between the land’s market value and its agricultural value.
Easements provide a retirement fund to many farmers who can’t save money during their farming life and don’t wish to sell the farm to developers.
And the program is popular. For every farmer who sells development rights, there are two more who want to, but can’t because there aren’t enough funds, said Valerie Connelly, director of government relations for the Maryland Farm Bureau.
Obtaining an easement is a lengthy process, about five years, and farms must be inspected to ensure land quality.
The only farms possibly eligible for reversal would be disaster-struck property where the land is too damaged to farm, Nielsen said.
But the built-in difficulties have not prevented officials from considering blocking the option all together.
This year, Carroll County began requiring new applicants to waive their rights to the 25-year option. Coincidentally, the first seven farms eligible for review in 2005 are all in Carroll County.
A similar statewide waiver strategy is under consideration, Conrad said.
For some farmers it may pay to hurdle the obstacles. “There’s no doubt there’s a lot of money in breaking an easement,” said James Conrad, the foundation’s executive director.
Conrad pointed out that farmers would have to buy back development rights at current value, rather than original price. Yet he said farms could profit from rezoning the land to allow development.
Still, there’s not expected to be a mass exodus as the review date nears.
“I don’t see any sentiment here for people petitioning to get out,” said Bill Powel, a Carroll County preservation manager. “We’re tied to a commitment for a permanent agriculture.”