MIDDLETOWN – Randy Sowers, a dairy farmer here for 22 years, says his farm has never shown a profit, so he and other farmers who sold development rights to the state through easements should retain the right to buy them back after 25 years.
“I was one of the biggest advocates of preserving farmland,” Sowers said looking out over the 160 acres of rolling green hills making up South Mountain Creamery. “But only preserve farm land if it’s got farmers on it that are making a living.”
Sowers said he’s carrying $4 million in debt, and success is impossible with lowered prices for milk and eggs and competition from large cooperatives.
Now he’s one of several farmers wondering whether to try to exercise their right to buy back development rights after farming on subsidized and protected farmland.
In 1977, the Maryland Agricultural Preservation Foundation was created to preserve farmland and control sprawl. It purchases easements from farmers, giving them a choice between a lump-sum payment or installments over 10 years. The easement price is the difference between the land’s market value and its agricultural value. Easements could be reviewed after 25 years – the provision that farmers now see as a buy-out clause.
But state officials say the law makes it exceedingly difficult for farmers to buy back development rights. It was clear from the beginning, they said, that all easements would be permanent.
“It’s ultimately going to be a legal test,” said James Conrad, foundation director.
That test is rapidly approaching. Seven properties will be eligible in 2005, 23 more in 2006 – most of those first groups in Carroll County – and hundreds and eventually thousands more with time.
But that doesn’t mean any buy backs will occur.
According to the law, for a farm to buy back development rights it must:
* Prove profitable farming is impossible.
* Gain approval from the county, preservation foundation, agriculture secretary and state treasurer.
* Pay current market value, not the amount paid by the state, for the rights.
Buyout chances are “slim to none,” said Craig Nielsen, counsel to Maryland’s Department of Agriculture.
Only disaster-struck properties where ruined soil can no longer be farmed might be eligible for reversal, he said.
That won’t deter Sowers from demanding his right to pull out, even if he hasn’t decided to do so.
“Why should I not have the option to develop it if I say I’m done with it?” he said. “It was a 25-year program, everybody knew it was 25 years.”
Sowers has watched Frederick County development rights soar in value. The easements for which he received $800 an acre are now worth $2,500. In more highly developed counties, the value per acre has risen to $15,000 or more.
The surge in values is tempting many farmers locked into easements with the state.
Robert Neal’s Carroll County hay farm will be eligible for buyout review in 2005, but the decision will be up to his son, Roger, who now owns the farm.
Still the elder Neal is critical of the easement program.
“I don’t think the county and state can afford it,” he said. The program should be discarded, so that the land can be converted into something that people can use.
John Arbaugh, also in Carroll County, thought his development rights would be returned after 25 years.
“They’re not doing what they said they’d be doing,” he said.
Other farmers said payments were unfair.
“Some people got big prices. Some didn’t get hardly any,” said Fern Haines, another Carroll County farmer.
Still others spoke enthusiastically about the program.
“I wouldn’t change my mind for anything,” said Robert Sebastian, whose Carroll County grain farm will reach the 25-year easement mark in 2006.
He is proud of having his 230 acres protected from sprawl.
“It’s very comfortable and the envy of everyone who comes down here,” he said. He is able to enjoy “peace and quiet, owls at night.”
In largely developed Montgomery County, Anne Laney put her 123-acre hay farm into preservation two years ago to combat sprawl.
“We’re just sick of seeing the land just totally destroyed,” she said, adding that she hopes the state makes it impossible for farmers to pull out.
Despite the criticisms, the program remains popular. For every farmer accepted into the easement program, two more wait because there is not enough funds, said Valerie Connelly of the Maryland Farm Bureau.
Because of that popularity, officials now can require waivers of the troublesome clause for new easements.
Carroll County requires such waivers and a General Assembly task force has recommended elimination of the 25-year buyout clause.
“It is a source of confusion,” said Joseph Tassone, task force director. “And the major problem is that it may be a source of litigation.”
Overall, the state owns roughly 1,600 easements covering more than 217,000 acres, and averages about 100 new easements each year.
The overall value of easements has more than doubled from the program’s beginning, climbing from an average of $953 per acre in 1980 to $2,000 today.
Some farmers and state officials fear developers will attempt to capitalize on rising land costs by purchasing easements in order to take them out after the 25-year mark.
“They’re going to buy these farms from the farmers for nothing because the farmer’s done with it . . . but it’s not going to bring anything because its got an easement on it,” Sowers said. “These developers are going to buy it and know the right people and they’re going to get them out.”
That’s not fair, Sowers said.
The program has always been voluntary and intended to be permanent, responded Conrad. Arguments by non-farming developers are “not going to be strong,” he said, because they may have a hard time proving farming is impossible.
And Maryland Agriculture Secretary Lewis Riley said he’d fight any developer who tried to take land out of preservation.
“I don’t see any way a landowner could get out of it.”
-30- CNS 10-31-03