Ocean City Today

Close county vote gives nod to rural legacy

Commissioners opt 4-3 to take part in expansion of land preservation program
By Brian Gilliland | Feb 08, 2018

(Feb. 9, 2018) The Worcester County Commissioners voted 4-3 to approve participation in and the expansion of the state’s rural legacy program, which pays landowners to surrender development rights, and is paid for by taxes collected in the state — without any additional local funding.

Voting in favor of continuing the program were Commissioner President Diana Purnell, and commissioners Merrill Lockfaw, Bud Church and Joe Mitrecic. Voting against were Commissioner Vice President Ted Elder, and commissioners Jim Bunting and Chip Bertino.

Church asked County Planner Katherine Munson where the funding would go if the county chose to not continue participation in the rural legacy program. She said the almost $2.1 million in requested money would return to the pool and become available to other participants.

In essence, Worcester County residents would continue to pay taxes to support a program from which they would see no benefit.

“The grant funds would be used to purchase conservation easements from willing landowners,” Munson wrote to the commissioners. “The funds also reimburse the county for administrative and all other costs associated with purchasing the conservation easement and long term monitoring.”

Elder said he opposed the preservation program because it tended to reward individuals rather than the bulk of county residents.

Bunting asked if critical area protections offer the same level of defense against development that the rural legacy program does, to which Bob Mitchell, environmental programs director, said it did not.

Because of the program’s popularity, Mitchell pitched expanding both of the county’s current legacy areas, the Coastal Bays Rural Legacy Area and the Dividing Creek Legacy Area. The Coastal Bays area has not been expanded since its inception in 1999, while Dividing Creek was expanded in 2013.

The county approved expanding Dividing Creek by almost 28,000 acres, while the Coastal Bays area will gain another 16,600 acres.

Mitchell said the expansions would allow the county to “cast a wider net” to include more eligible properties. Munson said about 80 percent of eligible properties participate in the program.

There are two reasons for the proposed expansions. First, the state is encouraging expansion, Munson said, and second, the county is behind its goal of protecting land as outlined in the comprehensive plan.

Mitchell said 29 percent of county lands eligible for the program have been protected from development, and this expansion would bring it to about 33 percent.

“These areas protect rich farmland, forests, wetlands, historic sites and wildlife habitats. Conservation within the RLAs provides water quality benefits to the Coastal and Chesapeake Bays and our local watersheds,” Mitchell wrote to the commissioners.

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