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Innovative Farmland Protection Programs

A sampling of the nation's best

September 1, 1997 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service


• Established in 1977, the Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Foundation gives farmers the opportunity to protect their holdings through a purchase of development rights program. In 1998 Maryland plans to invest $13 million to $15 million in the program, which is funded through a portion of the state property transfer tax and the agricultural land transfer tax. To date Maryland has spent $156.9 million to protect 968 farms, covering 139,827 acres.

CONTACT: Iva Frantz, Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Foundation, Tel. 410-841-5860, fax 410-841-5914.

Montgomery County-- In 1980 an agricultural preserve was established through special land use rules. The county established a way to pay for the program by giving farmers the opportunity to generate significant income by selling development rights to their land to builders who wanted to increase the density of homes in new subdivisions outside the preserve. And once a farm's development rights are sold, the land is permanently set aside exclusively for farm uses.

The program works because Montgomery County decided to create a marketable commodity known as a "development right." It is the theoretical right to build one house on five acres within the agriculture preserve. Meanwhile, outside the preserve, the county has set zoning limits on the number of homes that can be built in subdivisions. The only way that developers can increase the density of homes is to buy development rights from farmers.

Under the county's transfer of development rights program, a farmer with 100 acres has 20 development rights that he can sell to a builder who wants to add 20 houses to a subdivision. The housing market has been so strong in Montgomery County that five-acre development rights have fetched up to $30,000 each.

To date, the county has permanently protected more than 600 farms and nearly 46,000 acres in its agriculture preserve area.

CONTACT: Gus Baumann, former chairman of the Montgomery County Planning Commission, Tel. 202-789-6000, fax 202-789-6190.


• The Pennsylvania Farmland Preservation Program was established in 1988 with approval of a $100 million bond issue to purchase development rights from farmers. About 850 farms covering 103,000 acres have been preserved. The bond funds were exhausted several years ago. The program now is financed by a 2-cents-per-pack cigarette tax that raised $21 million in 1997, enough to buy 10,000 acres of development rights and keep 100 more farms in agriculture.

Lancaster County -- Since 1976 Lancaster County has pursued an aggressive program to protect its 5,000 farms and $700 million farm economy. Along with strictly enforcing conventional agricultural zoning, the county started a purchase of development rights program in 1983 with the help of the Lancaster Farmland Trust, and has preserved more than 300 farms that account for 25,000 acres of farmland.

In 1997 the county invested $5 million in the program, much of it derived from the proceeds of a 2-cents- per-pack state cigarette tax. The county also has established urban growth boundaries around 18 villages and populated areas. Development is encouraged inside a boundary through zoning and voluntary programs, and discouraged on the farmland outside. The county's effort has cut farmland loss from 3,000 acres per year in the 1980s to 1,000 acres per year in the late 1990s. As local officials and developers become more accustomed to the programs, the county is expecting to reduce the loss of farmland even more.

CONTACT: Tom Daniels, Director, Lancaster County Agricultural Preserve Board, Tel. 717-299-8355, fax 717-295-3659.


Sonoma County -- In 1990 residents voted to establish a farmland preservation district, and to a 1/4- cent sales tax increase to finance it. Under the program, the county collects about $10 million annually to acquire conservation easements on farmland under a purchase of development rights program, and to buy pasture, fields, and other agricultural lands. The top priorities are preserving the highest value farmland and keeping towns from merging together from sprawling growth. Under the program, nearly $30 million has been spent to protect 54 farms covering 21,162 acres of land.

CONTACT: Erik Vink, California Field Director, American Farmland Trust, Tel. 916-753-1073, fax 616- 753-1120.


• In 1975 Oregon directed counties to define and protect agricultural land in "exclusive farm use" zones. Strip malls, subdivisions, movie complexes, and the like are prohibited in the zones. However farmers are allowed to build homes for themselves and their families. Homes built by non-farmers, as well as churches, schools, golf courses, and farm-related businesses also are permitted under certain circumstances on all but the best "high-value" farmland -- approximately 25% of the total 16 million acres of the state's farmland. The law, supported by the Oregon Farm Bureau, has protected 32,000 farmers and a $3.4 billion farm economy.

CONTACT: Blair Batson, Staff Attorney, 1000 Friends of Oregon, Tel. 503-497-1000, fax 503-223-0073.

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