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Funding for next session critical for ag preservation

By MICHEL ELBEN
Staff Reporter

ANNAPOLIS, Md. — Although the Maryland legislature had a very productive session, some ag leaders worry that the legislators fell short in protecting farmland.
For the second year in a row, funding for the Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Fund and the Rural Legacy program was cut.
This year they lost a combined $8.7 million for fiscal year 2014.
Some land preservation advocates worry if the trend continues the state will lose out on opportunities to protect farmland. 
“We’re in a constant battle,” said Daniel Colhoun, a grain and livestock farmer in Baltimore County and former chairman of the Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Foundation. “It’s happening right here in Maryland. We’ve gained ground but there’s more ground to be preserved for working agriculture. Developer interest is not going to go away and the battle will be ongoing for what farmland remains.”
Colhoun said he is concerned for ag preservation programs because he does not believe the general public or many in the Maryland legislature understand the process.
“The general public supports ag preservation,” he said. “But they’re under the impression that the Real Estate Transfer Tax goes entirely to ag land preservation. The Senate sends a portion of it somewhere else. The public is being duped.”
Jim Baird, American Farmland Trust’ Mid-Atlantic director, wrote in letter to The Delmarva Farmer, that less for ag preservation could impact Maryland’s water quality. “In addition to providing a host of benefits, starting with our food, farmland is central to meeting the Chesapeake Bay restoration goals that Maryland, the Bay states and D.C. have committed to,” he said.
Baird said the current Maryland cleanup plan counts on farms to deliver 60 percent of the nitrogen reduction. Farms also play a role in providing towns with flood control protection, recharging groundwater and maintaining wildlife habitat.
Baird said the programs have become countercyclical.
“Farmers have fewer options when real estate market is down,” said Baird. “When the market is up they wonder, ‘Should I do an easement?’”
Baird added landowners are now more likely to sell an easement when the economy is poor, all the more reason to maintain or increase funding.
“We use land as retirement or to finance things,” Baird said. “Land conservation is getting harder to defend.”
Colhoun said the solution is more education.
“We need to make the Maryland Senate more aware of issue,” Colhoun said. “It’s as important as transportation, the Port of Baltimore or anything else on their mind.
“I worry that a three minute testimony to the legislature does nothing to get to the complexity of the issue across because they’re too bored to death to listen.”
Though the MALPF program was cut, executive director Carol West said, “We made out pretty well.”
In fiscal year 2014, MALPF was able to secure just over $24 million in funding.
“We received almost all of what Gov. O’Malley proposed,” West said.
One of many Maryland ag preservation programs, MALPF will combine the last two years of its funding and use additional county match monies to make easement offers this year. It has done this in the last six years to make competitive offers.
“We would like to see (funding) turn back to a one year cycle,” West said.
West said MALPF has 149 applicants this year and with the combined funds fiscal year 2014 and fiscal year 2013, the program would start at about $44 million.
That did not include matched monies from the counties that would participate in the program. This year all 23 counties are participating except one, which has a very strong county ag preservation program.
West said the Septic Bill, also known as the Sustainable Growth and Agricultural Preservation Act of 2012, could help ag land preservation by increasing the demand for easements as land moved into Tier 4 would have more development restrictions.
“If the Septics Bill works, it will go a long way to help ag land preservation. If it changes, we’ll be right back where we were before.”
Stacy Schaefer, associate director of land conservation at the Department of Natural Resources saw the Rural Legacy program cut this year but said, “The economy is getting better. Everything is going back up.”
Schaefer said the funding for the Rural Legacy Program has increased steadily in the last few years.
“Two years ago, we had no new money,” she said. “Now we’re at $13.5 million.”
Schaefer said a lot of preservation programs took hits this session but “we were fortunate.”