Local Rural Legacy Funds In Jeopardy

SNOW HILL – Local sponsors of Rural Legacy land preservation projects would like to preserve 1,204 acres of forest and farmland, but current financial circumstances might prompt Worcester County to put its contribution to the fiscal year 2010 requests on hold for better times. 

The Worcester County matches for the proposed Coastal Bays Rural Legacy Area (RLA) and Dividing Creek RLA conservation easements would total $200,000 to be split between the two areas, which staff acknowledged might not be possible in next year’s budget.

“It put a lump in my throat when I asked for a $200,000 match,” said Comprehensive Planning Director Sandy Coyman.

Rural Legacy sponsors, which are the Worcester County Commissioners, the Somerset County Commissioners and The Nature Conservancy, have applied for two state grants for FY 2010, $1 million for a conservation easement in the Coastal Bays RLA, and $2 million for the Dividing Creek RLA.

The Dividing Creek easement would extinguish development rights on 712 acres, encompassing a pair of waterfront parcels designated priority one. These properties include highly desirable freshwater tidal wetlands.

The Coastal Bays easement would preserve 492 acres of timber owned by E. S. Adkins timber company.

Given the uncertainty of the state budget, Coyman suggested that the letter requesting funds for the easements be amended to inform the state Rural Legacy program that the county might not be able to provide the required match, and that no monetary decisions would be made before the budget process begins in early spring.

Rural Legacy staff have told Coyman that this is the right approach.

Still, the county needs to make a decision by April, according to Rural Legacy. While that is early for the county budget, which will be nowhere near complete, the Maryland General Assembly will have completed its own budgeting process by then. The county will have a more firm idea of finances at that point.

The Dividing Creek RLA property should be prioritized over the Coastal Bays property, Coyman said, if the county must choose one. There is more landowner interest in the new Dividing Creek preservation area. “We’d be able to pursue easements more aggressively there,” Coyman said.

A delay in funding is only a small setback, said Elizabeth Zucker, director of the Eastern Shore chapter of The Nature Conservancy.

“Every landowner I speak with, they’re fully aware that budget constraints could make things happen more slowly,” said Zucker. “The landowners are really patient, they really are.”

Sponsors have also sought money from other sources to fund conservation easements, Zucker said.