Friday, May 21–Conservation Resource Program Questioned

SNOW HILL – A type of
conservation easement meant to transfer marginal cropland to conservation land
could be costing state taxpayers too much and causing enforcement problems for
local jurisdictions.

The Conservation
Resource Enhancement Program (CREP) does not extinguish development rights,
unlike many other conservation easement programs, and does not have to cover
the entire farm parcel, which could allow for later development that could have
negative impacts on the conserved land, according to Worcester County staff.

As the program is
currently set-up, CREP land receives payments at the same level as the Rural
Legacy program and the Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Program. The latter
programs extinguish development rights, but CREP does not.

While CREP funding comes
from the state of Maryland, everyone in Worcester County pays state taxes,
Development Permitting and Review Director Ed Tudor said at Tuesday’s Worcester
County Commissioners meeting. 

The current CREP program
is not a wise use of taxpayer dollars, Tudor said.

The county is allowed to
add more restrictive regulations to CREP.

Staff advised the
commissioners to require that entire parcels be encumbered under a CREP easement,
with each parcel restricted to one residential unit, at the state established
payment rate. Landowners would also have the opportunity to pay for two
independent appraisals, and the lower of the appraisals would become the
easement price.

“We think it’s a better
use of tax dollars and lets us protect additional farmland,” said Tudor.

“I thought it was an
enormous amount of money to pay for what we are getting,” Commission President
Bud Church said.

With nearly four decades
in real estate under his belt, Church said that he could see landowners calling
whoever they want to do an appraisal and receiving the assessment they request.

“I don’t think it’s
prudent that the landowner do both appraisals,” said Church.

development rights this way would prevent landowners from building homes for
children or grandchildren on their farmland, Church noted.

“The state ultimately
has the final say,” said Commissioner Virgil Shockley.

The state can refuse to
accept the value stated by appraisers retained by a landowner, Shockley said.
His concern was less the price, than the fact that land which was never going
to be built on, such as land near a river, would be considered for an easement
because of the extermination of the building rights.

A lot of landowners
would not be willing to tie up their entire farm in such an easement, Shockley
said. Some old parcels are up to 700 acres in size. Those farmers might want to
set aside marginal land for conservation, but under the proposed approach could
not do so and retain building rights on the rest of the parcel.

“I agree with Virgil,
100 percent,” said Church. “I do have a major problem with this.”

His issue is with the
mechanics, not the broader changes, Church said.

The county needs to talk
to farmers before moving forward with this, Shockley said.

“The people who are
going to be affected are the people who own the land,” Shockley said. “Let’s
get some opinions.”

The commissioners voted
unanimously to table the CREP changes.