Officials concerned about request to quit farmland preservation

By Sam Smith

Maryland farm (By Madbuster75 on Flickr)

Maryland Department of Agriculture Secretary Earl Hance told legislators Tuesday that if the applications of a Howard County landowner to terminate agricultural easements for three farms are approved it could “open the floodgates” for more landowners to do the same.

Although the land purchased by the Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Foundation (MALPF) is intended to forever prohibit development of prime farmland and woodland, landowners can apply for termination 25 years after signing an easement agreement.

The Mullinix Brothers Partnership have filed the first termination request in MALPF’s 35-year history seeking to end the easements on two farms in Dayton and one in Mount Airy which total 490 acres.

“These three pending termination applications are the first that have been received in the state of Maryland,” said MALPF Executive Director Carol West at a joint subcommittee hearing on Program Open Space & Agricultural Land Preservation Tuesday in Annapolis. “The applications were first received in August. They had some other things that they needed to do. We didn’t accept them as complete until Oct. 1. That gives the state 180 days to make our final decision.”

Owner needs to show profitable farming no longer possible

For termination, the law requires the landowner to pay for an appraisal and repurchase the easement within 180 days of the appraisal. Easements can only be terminated if there is substantial evidence showing that profitable farming is not attainable on the farms in question. West said that Mullinix has not given any indication that is the case.

“Not a substantial reason was given,” West said.

Mark Mullinex, who along with his brothers Steve and Mike comprise the partnership, told the brothers don’t see a farming future on their land.

“We three love to farm, but we’re not going to make it in Howard County,” Mullinex said. “We are not in an agricultural county anymore. Howard County even calls it agritourism.”

More easements hitting 25-year mark

Hance and West told the committee that they will be concerned if Mullinix’s termination is granted because more easement agreements are starting to hit the 25-year mark making them eligible for termination and vulnerable to suburban development pressures. However, Mullinix said that he has not been pursued by developers.

In Howard County alone, there are 29 properties totalling over 3,950 acres that are eligible to apply to terminate easements.

West said MALPF hired an expert to determine whether profitable farming is feasible on the farmland being proposed. The surveyor will evaluate the productive capacity of the land, the effect that nearby developments have on the land, and the profitability of neighboring farms.

In order to grant termination, MALPF will also hold a public hearing at 6 p.m. Thursday at the Howard County Fairgrounds dining hall.

Although the final approval is needed from MALPF to grant the termination, the law requires that approval must also be granted by Howard County within 90 days of the MALPF public hearing. The law also requires that the county hear recommendations from the Howard County Agricultural Preservation Advisory Board, which will hold a hearing on Nov. 26. The county government is also expected hold a hearing sometime in January.