Friday, Sept 18–New Land Conservation Funding Options Sought

SNOW HILL – With funding for land preservation dwindling in the face of economic pressures, Worcester County is looking to two new programs to help continue its land preservation efforts.

At least one source of land preservation funding, the Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Foundation (MALPF), which has helped the county in the past, will not be funded this fiscal year. Under the MALPF program, Worcester County has been able to protect 5,300 acres in the past several years.

Staff also expects funding for other land protection initiatives, such as the Rural Legacy Program, to be reduced.

The county will pursue participation in two new programs to take up some of the slack.

“We have to look for other opportunities to assist in our [land] preservation,” said Commissioner Linda Busick.

The Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) pays property owners land rent or establishes a permanent easement to preserve environmentally sensitive  land near local waterways.

According to Katherine Munson, a planner with Worcester County, CREP easements are meant to protect water quality by putting best management practices in place on marginal agricultural land, such as forested streamside buffers, grassed streamside buffers, wetlands, highly erodible land and habitat for threatened or declining species.

Less erosion of dirt into waterways, less flooding and the removal of nutrients from stormwater, before it reaches local waters, through preserving these areas benefits water quality.

Only nine Maryland counties, including Worcester, have been selected to participate in CREP, with $12.5 million to be divided among those counties over the next five years.

This is a revamped program, said Ed Tudor, head of Development Review and Permitting. Tudor likening the new version to “CREP on steroids,” having become bigger and more comprehensive.

The CREP program, modeled on the Rural Legacy Program, would be administered by Worcester County, under the existing successful program.

Candidates for CREP easements must be areas of at least 30 acres, with higher scores in the application process earned for easements offered on 60 or more acres and for buffers wider than 250 feet.

Points can also be earned for easements requested on land adjoining already protected land, as well as for easements on locations in a watershed with an established total maximum daily load (TMDL).

Another possible substitute for lost land preservation funding is the federal Farm and Ranch Land Protection Program (FRPP), which buys development rights on agricultural land in an attempt to keep productive land in use.

The non-profit Lower Shore Land Trust (LSLT), based in Berlin, is slated for $960,000 in FRPP funds for both Worcester County and neighboring Somerset County. These funds could be used to match the Rural Legacy Program funds.

Use of FRPP funds for easement purchases in Worcester County would require the county to undertake a memorandum of understanding with LSLT, which would administer the funds.

If Worcester County does not elect to participate in FRPP, the money awarded to LSLT will go entirely to Somerset County.

“These are all voluntary programs,” said Tudor.

The County Commissioners voted unanimously to pursue the new land preservation initiatives.