Preservation’s Undoing

11/10/2012 10:00 AM
By Margaret Gates Regional Editor

Last week, as Delaware honored four families who have owned their farms for at least 100 years, Maryland released word that one of its longtime farming families is looking to remove nearly 500 acres of land from the state’s agricultural land preservation program.
The Mullinix brothers of Howard County, whose family farming history goes back more than a century, are seeking to terminate three preservation easements they entered into more than 25 years ago.
In what the state is calling an “unprecedented” move, the Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Foundation will hold a public hearing next week to consider the family’s request — the first such request to terminate an easement in the foundation’s more-than-30-year history.
Terminating an easement is no easy task — and rightly so. It would involve meeting a number of criteria, not the least of which is proving that profitable farming is no longer feasible on the land.
The final decision, which is expected early next year, will likely have lasting repercussions no matter what the outcome.
On the one hand, it could mean development on prime land and a blow to the county’s efforts to preserve farming in the area.
It could also mean that other landowners who, like the Mullinix family, entered the program at least 25 years ago, might be more inclined to seek termination of their own agreements.
On the other hand, a decision against the family could mean a continued struggle for them to craft an agricultural operation that is both economically and intrinsically satisfying in an area where they say the farming economy is weak and dwindling.
Certainly, we applaud the efforts of programs like the Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Foundation to not only preserve the land, but also to promote agricultural production.
To date, MALPF has preserved more than 284,000 acres on nearly 2,100 Maryland farms.
Likewise, we honor the sacrifice and commitment of those landowners who have entered into the preservation program.
Although there are tax benefits to such a move, there is potentially a loss of significant market value, particularly for land on the urban fringe.
Unlike the Mullinix easements, those entered into the program since 2004 are perpetual, meaning forever. Forever is a long time.
That is a comforting thought when we consider that land will remain as it is, open to agricultural production, for generations to come.
It is a comfort to many outside the agricultural community, as well, who simply appreciate the beauty and environmental benefits of open space, as opposed to encroaching development.
But forever can also be a frightening thought, especially when no one knows what the future of the economic and physical landscape surrounding that preserved farmland holds.
That is why it’s important that, along with a strong preservation program, we also have a society that respects and encourages agricultural enterprises and supports a thriving farm economy.
If we truly want a flourishing farming landscape in the future, then we must do more than simply preserve the land. We must expand the opportunities for the future caretakers of the land as well.

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