Preserving land near a growth area, or in more rural areas?

Both the county commissioners and the county’s planning staff wanted to preserve Washington County’s farmland.

The question that came up this week is how best to do it.

The commissioners voted this week to try a new formula for designing which properties will get preservation easements that would go into effect next year, pending state approval.

Of the available programs for protecting agricultural properties from development, the Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Program is used the most. Through it, the state provides grants for purchasing permanent preservation easements on farmland selected through an application process.

The county’s Agricultural Advisory Board ranks those applicants through a point system that “assigns points for such things as quality of soil, proximity to other preserved lands, agricultural status, economic viability and relationship to other land use areas in the county,” according to county documents.

The ranked list is then sent to the Washington County Board of Commissioners for approval before being sent to the Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Foundation for final consideration.

The current ranking system gives priority to properties farther from the county’s designated growth areas, according to Rural Preservation Administrator Chris Boggs.

But the advisory board wants to rank applicants by a different standard.

In order to curb what members see as a more dangerous potential encroachment, they want to give priority to applicants closer to growth areas, Boggs told the county commissioners this week.

The advisory board voted for the change in criteria when it ranked the applicants, Boggs said, and submitted two lists of nominations — one with applicants ranked with the current formula, and one with applicants ranked with the proposed one — to the commissioners.

“This proposal was in order to hopefully stymie any sort of urban growth area expansion in the future,” Boggs said, “to limit growth so that encroachments into the rural area would be halted simply by using land preservation as sort of a growth management tool .”

But the county’s planning staff has several concerns, he said.

State guidance has specific criteria for preservation, he said. A variation such as reversing the ranking system as proposed would need to be approved by state officials.

Established planning doctrine, Boggs said, calls for preserving land “in large, expansive blocks in the rural areas, in order to essentially create a higher economic output from agriculture.” With agricultural land consigned to a large area, he said, farmers who farm multiple properties could more easily go from parcel to parcel.

Applications submitted for the program early this year were filed with the understanding that the “old” ranking system would be used, Boggs said. It would be unfair to those applicants to change the system after their applications were submitted, he said.

Planners were concerned about a “hopscotch effect,” Boggs said, should a ring of preserved properties surround the growth area. “Then you run the risk of development … skipping over those properties and occurring in more rural lands,” he said, where infrastructure is not in place to handle it.

Despite these concerns, the commissioners backed the Agricultural Advisory Board’s proposal, believing those agricultural properties nearer the designated growth areas are more vulnerable to development.

Noting that the advisory board had voted unanimously to change the ranking system — with one abstention, “each one of these (objections) I can walk through and deconstruct,” Commissioner Derek Harvey said. “‘Doctrine’ doesn’t prevent doing this at all; it’s doctrine. So that’s sort of a straw man.”

The advisory board understood the threat to the county’s rural character “primarily exists in areas closer to the urban growth boundary rather than farther away,” he said.

Commissioner Randy Wagner suggested the lack of infrastructure — utilities, roads, etc. — in more rural areas would deter development. “You’re not gonna see a warehouse pop up in Keedysville,” he said.

“The point that we’re making here is looking at things very long-term,” Planning Director Jill Baker told the commissioners. “The only concern that we really kind of have here is boxing yourself into a corner.”

The problem was not so much changing the ranking system as setting up conflicts between growth and preservation in those properties nearer the growth areas, she said, and whether the farmers could maintain their economic viability so close to the growth areas.

“Long-term, that means you don’t have a place to grow,” she said.

Commissioner Wayne Keefer countered that “we can’t even provide the necessary services within the urban growth boundary for planned development or potential development,” so he wasn’t concerned about a “hopscotch effect.”

Baker and Boggs noted that any change in the ranking system should go through a public hearing before being approved and forwarded to state officials.

The commissioners voted to prepare the proposal to send to state officials, but to make the change effective next year, if it’s approved, so this year’s applicants aren’t effective.

There are 20 farms on the list, but their rankings are confidential.

Boggs said an additional $20 million has been made available for the MALPP easements this year. He anticipates eight to 10 easements will be purchased as a result.

Trends, resources, growth: How should Washington County look in the future?

This article originally appeared on The Herald-Mail: Criteria for agricultural easements could change next year