County Approves New Snow Hill Conservation Easement; Bertino, Elder Express Concerns

SNOW HILL – A pair of county commissioners last week expressed concern over the growing number of conservation easements in Worcester County.

During what looked to be a routine consideration of an easement for a 106-acre property in Snow Hill, Commissioners Ted Elder and Chip Bertino said they thought officials needed to take a closer look at the issue. Bertino said 29 percent of Worcester County’s land was already protected with easements.

“How do we know how much is too much?” he said.

The commissioners were asked by staff to approve a conservation easement through the Coastal Bays Rural Legacy Area (RLA) program for 106 acres in Snow Hill owned by Hugh and Jennifer Cropper and Edna Strayer. The $231,009 cost of the easement would be funded through the county’s Coastal Bays RLA grant. According to the county’s website, the funds made available through the Maryland Rural Legacy Program are meant to protect the state’s undeveloped landscapes. In 2006, the county set a goal to protect 3,000 to 4,000 acres in the ensuing decade.

With the funding from the state — which comes from real estate transfer taxes — Worcester County is typically able to purchase between 200-600 acres in easements each year.

Elder said he disagreed with the entire program.

“I think these things need to be looked at closer,” Elder said.

Elder, who was elected to his first term last November, said that even though the money was coming from the state, it still started with taxpayer dollars. He also pointed out that county officials were buying easements when they had other financial issues.

“We discuss how we can cut people out of benefits who are making $25,000 to $30,000 a year and we’re getting ready to make a blanket pass of a couple hundred thousand dollars,” he said.

Bertino raised the question of how much land the county should protect with conservation easements.

“Is there a point we have protected too much property, that we have tied the hands of future generations for economic development, for the needs that might exist 50-60 years from now?” he said. “Once it’s protected, it’s in perpetuity. No development can take place on that property.”

Also in his first year in elected office, Bertino asked whether the public would have any access to the easements. County staff said typically there would not be public access. Bob Mitchell, the county’s head of environmental programs, pointed out that the protected lands would still be used by the people who owned them.

“They’re protected from development,” Mitchell said. “They’re still retaining their uses. These aren’t areas adjacent to developed areas.”

Sonny Bloxom, the county’s attorney, said the issues Bertino raised would be addressed when the county did its next comprehensive plan.

Commissioner Bud Church spoke in favor of the easement program. He said he wasn’t aware of a time the commissioners had not approved a Coastal Bays RLA purchase in 14 years.

“I think it’s a win-win for the county,” he said.

The commissioners voted 6-1, with Elder opposed, to approve the purchase of the easement.