(Nov. 20, 2020) The Worcester County Commissioners agreed to sign off on two state grants that will fund the county’s property conservation easement programs.
Worcester County Environmental Programs Planner Katherine Munson said the program focuses on environmental conservation through the purchase of property development rights.
“The purpose is to protect in perpetuity, contiguous, productive and valuable farms and forests [by] working with private landowners,” Munson said. “The properties remain in private ownership — all that we are doing is removing the development rights.”
There are two programs: the Coastal Bays and the Dividing Creek Rural Legacy areas.
The county handles all components of the former, but works with Somerset County for the latter in a 50/50 cost share agreement. The Lower Shore Land Trust handles the administrative, accounting and reporting responsibilities for easements in Somerset County.
In Worcester County alone, these regions account for 10,900 acres of land.
To be eligible for the programs, a property must be 40 acres and have developmental rights available for purchase, Munson said.
The program does come with stipulations: property owners must create a land stewardship plan, a water conservation plan for farmland and, in some cases, create buffers on streams or other waterfronts to protect water quality.
“We also do restrict CAFOs — concentrated animal feeding operations — for rural legacies,” Munson said. “So they cannot build large-scale chicken houses.”
Impervious surface area is restricted as well, meaning landowners cannot develop numerous structures on these lands.
The county prioritizes certain properties based on a set of criteria, such as proximity to protected lands, waterfront properties and properties with unique features.
The county applied for $1 million of state money for both programs, and received $538,749 for the former and $813,749 for the latter.
The money is derived from state real estate transfer tax, Munson said, which the state established specifically to fund conservation projects statewide.
Currently, there are 66 properties that the county considers eligible for the Coastal Bays program.
With roughly $600,000 to spare — Munson said the county had about $100,000 left over from last year — the county could purchase three property easements this year.
“We do anticipate that we’ll incorporate every landowner who wants to participate, but they might have to wait for a while,” Munson said.
So far, the county has purchased 53 conservation easements in both programs since 2001.
“Land is a limited resource, and if the agricultural economy is going to continue, we need large expanses of land,” Munson said. “People … think that all growth is going to lead to an increased tax base or an improved economy for a local jurisdiction and that may or may not be the case … rampant residential development does not generally pay for itself. There are many studies that show that. So protecting land instead is fiscally responsible for the county.”