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Cecil County Commish Buy McCoy Farm Rights; Hodge, ‘Patriots’ Oppose $1.45 million Deal

June 20, 2012
By Nancy Schwerzler

The Cecil County Commissioners voted Tuesday to give a Rising Sun farm owner $1.45 million in return for agreeing not to allow development of the 483-acre tract, after several hours of often heated public comment led by members of the local tea party group that opposed “government control” of private property.

Others objected to the costs, when other county projects have been cut or put on the backburner, and questioned the wisdom of giving taxpayer money to a landowner when there is no imminent threat of development of the property.

Advocates of farmland preservation, including former County Commissioner Phyllis Kilby, strongly supported the acquisition, which will be front-financed by the county government. (Kilby’s husband, Bill, heads the Cecil Land Trust that brokered the deal.) However, federal funds are expected to reimburse the county for about $720,000 of the cost, leaving the county paying a net cost of about $730,000.

Voting in favor of the purchase were the usual “Three Amigos” faction of the Cecil County Commissioners—Board President James Mullin (R-1) and Commissioners Diana Broomell (R-4) and Michael Dunn (R-3). Commissioner Tari Moore (R-2) abstained on the vote, saying she was “very concerned” that the property owner, Lowell McCoy, might not have seen the text of a contract between federal authorities and the Cecil Land Trust.

But Commissioner Robert Hodge (R-5) voted “no,” saying that while he generally supported the concept of farmland preservation, given the difficult economy it was not the top priority for expenditure of taxpayer funds at this time. He noted that a majority of the commissioners have recently refused to spend money on much-needed road repairs, school improvements and, in particular, “passed on the opportunity” to pursue a proposed purchase of the Basell property for a long-delayed new vo-tech school.

Hodge said there was “a big but here” and while farmland preservation is a laudable goal, this was not the time to spend county funds to do so for the McCoy property. At Hodge’s insistence, the proposal was amended to provide that if the federal funds to reimburse the county fall through, the entire deal would be canceled, so the county is not left holding the bag for the full cost.

Members of the Cecil County Patriots, the local ‘tea party’ group, showed up in force to testify against the expenditure, with many taking a philosophical position that the government had no business interfering in the free market and claiming that the entire farmland preservation program was part of a broader, United Nations-endorsed “Agenda 21” to convert private property to government ownership and control.

Bill Harris of Cecilton, who heads the local Republican Club, said the commissioners were “falling into a trap” of groups that want to force people to live in urbanized areas and limit their location choices for so-called environmental reasons. “They are sneaking around buying up land,” he said, and “they want us pedaling our bicycles, like China.”

But Ron Lobos, a member of the Patriots, took a more practical approach, saying that the real issue was giving taxpayer money to a “millionaire” private landowner, who would “take the money and run.” Lobos said it was “sheer lunacy” to give public funds to a private landowner when the public would have no rights of access to the preserved land. “You know what we need to develop? A department of common sense,” he said.

Lobos held up a plastic pail, labeled “Lowell McCoy Fund,” and he asked people in the room to donate voluntarily if they wished to help preserve the McCoy farm. Late in the afternoon, he had collected less than a dollar from voluntary donations.

Earlier in the afternoon during a “citizens corner” comment session before the formal Commissioners meeting, Al Reasin, another member of the Patriots group, questioned the impact of the state’s new “Plan Maryland” and the designation of “tiers” that will decide the density of development on individual parcels. Since the McCoy land is tentatively tagged as a “tier 3” limited development area, he pointed out that the 483 acre parcel could have no more than 48 houses on it if it were to be developed instead of “preserved” at taxpayer expense.

On the other side, George Kaplan, a leader of the Cecil Land Use Alliance, said the easement was “a good deal” and that declining property values had enabled the county to obtain the rights at a bargain price. He said the “political” objection of opponents of the transaction “is clearly not a majority view in Cecil County.”

The Cecil County Farm Bureau also supported the McCoy easement and historic preservation advocates pointed out the property was “lot 1” of a historic land grant dating to the colonial era.

Rupert Rosetti, a geologist involved in various volunteer water quality projects in the county, said preservation of the McCoy farm “would be very beneficial” to the Octoraro watershed and streams in the area that ultimately flow to the Bay.

At one point, an opponent of the sale, Harold McCannick, complained loudly that “the people of Cecil County are about to get scammed” and said taxpayers would be left to “hold the doo-doo bag.” He accused some commissioners of “paying your special interests back,” mentioning Mullin, Broomell, and Dunn by name. (Mullin and Broomell were founding members of the CLUA group and have sided with other anti-development groups such as the Appleton Regional Community Alliance that opposed sale of county sewage plants to the private Artesian firm).

Mullin hit his gavel, saying “that’s out of line, sir” and threatened to “call the sheriff’s office.”

The McCoy land is the second major farmland preservation project approved by the county commissioners in recent months. In December, the Commissioners agreed to proceed with a $550,770 preservation easement plan for the Carson farm in Rising Sun. That deal is close to completion and eventually the county, which front-funded the money, is expect to be reimbursed $244,000 from federal funds.

[See previous Cecil Times report here: http://ceciltimes.com/2011/12/cecil-county-pays-big-bucks-for-farm-preservation-easement/

The money for the Carson and McCoy farm preservation projects comes from money the county shares with the state from the recordation tax collected when land is sold. The county gets a bigger share of funds from the state if it has a farmland preservation program. However, the county is not restricted in its use of the recordation tax money and in past years has used some of that money for general operating expenses in the county budget.

Meanwhile, Mullin has been intensifying efforts to create a new “purchase of development rights bank” through which the county itself—without a federal or non-profit group partner– would buy, and own, the development rights to selected properties. The county would hold on to them until, some day, a developer wants increased densities on another parcel in a designated growth area and would ‘buy’ development rights from the ‘bank’. In theory, such programs are designed to have developers pay for preservation of rural lands after-the-fact. (The farmers who get the county money still own their land.)

But a private sector-only program of transfer of development rights on the county’s lawbooks for over six years has yet to yield any takers for private transactions between farmers and developers. And the negative economic climate and falling housing prices make it unlikely that a county-as-banker program would have any better results.

Nevertheless, the commissioners have earmarked $1 million from casino revenues to launch the ‘bank’ and buy development rights the county may never be able to sell, or at least not until a major upturn in the local economy.

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11 Responses to Cecil County Commish Buy McCoy Farm Rights; Hodge, ‘Patriots’ Oppose $1.45 million Deal

  1. F Gaylord Moody III on June 21, 2012 at 10:20 am

    Mr Kaplan mentioned the majority view in Cecil County which favors the land preservation efforts. Not to mince words, but the voting public got a whiff from a recent transaction before the recent primary election. Mr Mullin had made farm land preservation one of his signature issues, and he was defeated.

    I believe that Republican primary voters realized the farm land preservation transactions, at least as executed at this time, are not consistent with core values of their party. I do not think these recent transactions enjoy the support of majority view. The land reform movement was adept at capturing the mechanisms of governance, but now the elected advocates of that movement are being judged.

    I suppose we will have to wait two years for Senator EJ, Delegate Mike and Commissioners Broomell and Dunn to stand for election, and see if land reform transactions are still hot topics, and if those elected advocates enjoy majority view.

    • Phillip Abbott on June 21, 2012 at 10:38 pm

      Mr. Moody, your logic here is seriously flawed.

      All five Republican Commissioners voted in favor of that “recent transaction” for land preservation efforts, not just Mullin. Yes, Mullin was defeated in the Primary – but using your logic – Moore and Hodge should have been defeated as well.

      They were not – in fact, they won their Republican Primary races with definitive margins.

      • F Gaylord Moody III on July 5, 2012 at 4:55 pm

        Perhaps we should not look to logic to explain voters’ actions; however, when voters have a choice, they generally try to select the better/ best candidate on the ballot. There was an acceptable alternative to Commissioner Mullin; Commissioners Hodge and Moore were apparently the better/ best choices available in their respective races.

        The “recent transaction” I refer to was the Carson development rights purchase. (See the December 20, 2011 Cecil Times) The Cecil Land Trust recommended the county pay in excess of the appraised value. Commissioner Mullin seemed comfortable in paying an excess of an appraised value; Commissioner Hodge distributed copies of the appraisal to concerned taxpayers and insisted the county not overpay. The view of Commissioner Hodge prevailed with a unanimous vote to acquire those rights.

        I do think primary voters are more engaged than voters in a general election and I think they noted the failure of Commissioner Mullin to exercise responsible stewardship of public monies. Further, Commissioner Mullin did provide leadership in many aspects of farmland preservation for the last decade. Now the program comes to fruition during a time of scarce funds, and the sloppy execution of transactions is perhaps being mistaken for cronyism, and a deliberate lack of transparency.

        But the theme of sloppy execution continues. In the McCoy purchase, during the public comment, a taxpayer shook the confidence of at least one commissioner who requested a delay of vote until county officials ensured the landowner was privy to contracts between the Land Trust and the Federal agency. By the way, I think we will see that commissioner pay for the apparent indecision. Just as that commissioner seemed to lose faith in the incumbent government, I believe voters will lose faith in the incumbents. In the McCoy transaction, Commissioner Hodge voted against the transaction; he expressed concern the timing was wrong.

        Yes, I do think the recent land transactions will weaken all five incumbent commissioners as they eventually face the voters. Further, I predict that Commissioner Mullin will set up Commissioners Broomell and Dunn for future defeat if he advances, and if they support, the silliness of using public funds to purchase and bank TDR’s. There exists a market mechanism for real estate transactions; it is called the Cecil County Board of Realtors. Anyone wanting to sell real estate may put their property, or derivatives thereof, on the CCBOR multi-list. If there is a demand, the property will sell; if there is no market, there will be no sale. It will not cost the public anything.

        The preservation of farmland has taken on the scent of redistribution of wealth from the working and middle class to the benefit of the large land owners. That is right wing central planning – fascism, and I do believe the other shoe will drop. Let’s see what happens in November.

  2. Scott on June 21, 2012 at 10:30 am

    “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few”– Yeah, it’s a movie quote, but it is one that should be recited before EVERY vote at every level of government. Can you imagine how much better off our county, state, and country would be if politicians made decisions based on that simple premise?

    $1.45 MILLION DOLLARS– Just let that number sink in for a moment. Broomell, Dunn, and Mullin spend OUR tax dollars with no regard to the county as a whole. Cecil County has come to expect that sort of childish behavior from this group. They seem to be on a scorched earth trajectory, as they certainly have no hope of re-election.

    Hodge, at least, had the courage to say no to the special interests in a futile effort; and thought enough to add a safeguard to the language of the bill. I’m disappointed that Moore did not take an official stand on this issue. Her vote wouldn’t have changed the outcome, but this county is desperate for leaders who make decisions for the good of the whole county, and abstaining is not leading.

    How does this proceed? Can the citizens of Cecil County file a temporary injunction to have this travesty stopped or at least put to the voters on referendum? It would be interesting to see how the dots connect behind the scenes with all parties involved. Why are some representatives (term used loosely) so eager to payoff individual landowners with OUR tax money?

    If our elected officials were TRULY “representatives” of Cecil County, they would not be using our tax dollars for this endeavor.

  3. Bobby G on July 3, 2012 at 5:53 am

    cor·rupt
       [kuh-ruhpt] Show IPA

    adjective
    1.
    guilty of dishonest practices, as bribery; lacking integrity; crooked: a corrupt judge.

    2.
    debased in character; depraved; perverted; wicked; evil: a corrupt society.

    3.
    made inferior by errors or alterations, as a text.

    4.
    infected; tainted.

    5.
    decayed; putrid.

  4. B.J Jackson on July 9, 2012 at 1:37 pm

    The most important thing that really didn’t come across in the media or blogs coverage was that the money for this came from our land preservation fund with money specifically set aside for this kind of purchase. So the talking point that the Commissioners could have used this money towards the tec school isn’t correct, the money wasn’t from the general fund and couldn’t be used for anything but preserving farmland. The money has been collecting dust for a few years and is in danger of reverting back to the state. So this purchase preserves a large tract of land in Rising Sun area that will prevent more sprawl and may also hold some water recharge possibilities that may solve the town’s water problems in the future,So there’s a little more to this than the media and blogs have printed.

  5. Ron Lobos on July 10, 2012 at 8:33 am

    Actually, Mrs. Jackson, this money didn’t come from a land preservation fund that magically appeared; it came from a recordation tax directed towards people who bought real estate. It was not a voluntary tax that had the approval of the land purchaser, but was rather imposed on them without their direct consent. Also, money from this fund was previously placed into the general fund, which I believe would have allowed the commissioners to redistribute it towards the tec school property or other purposes. This would have benefitted hundreds of young people living in this county who were eager to learn a trade– rather than directing it towards one single millionaire who is probably in debt up to his ears.

    Lastly, unless we have a repeat of the housing boom from the early 2000′s (which is highly unlikely to happen within the next 50 years), or a change in Plan Maryland, this land will likely never be developed. I don’t feel it is the place of county, state or federal governments to redistribute income, no matter how just the cause may seem.

    • John D. Meck on July 16, 2012 at 3:23 am

      Dear Ron Lobos,
      You made several good points.
      However, your “probably in debt up to his ears” statement about Mr. McCoy is unprofessional.
      Regardless of your perspective, unfounded assertions about a person’s financial status just deflate the quality of your entire argument. Honestly, I can’t figure out what on earth that assertion even has to do with the issue at hand. If I said “you probably still beat your wife,” how would it make you feel? Stick to the facts and opinions about the issues and spare us all the personal drama.
      Thanks!
      John Meck

      • Ron Lobos on July 16, 2012 at 2:19 pm

        Sorry about that John. That statement of “In debt up to his ears” was probably unprofessional however it was not unfounded. A recent Circuit Court decision show a “confessed/consent judgment” against Mr. McCoy in favor of NBRS for a sizable amount of money. That is not something I really wanted to assert but feel compelled to do now since I was questioned on the matter. It is a fact, and was never meant to serve as drama. Again, you have my sincere apology on the matter.

  6. John D. Meck on July 15, 2012 at 5:24 pm

    I am not in favor of the concept. Hodge voted fudamentally correct in my opinion. However, there is a silver lining in the McCoy case. The purchase price was a bargain. If I were in Mr. McCoy’s shoes, I would have passed on the offer.

    The problem here in Cecil County is a lack of voter turnout, just like in all elections in the US. People like to complain, but on election day the overwhelming majority are a NO SHOW!

  7. Jackie on July 17, 2012 at 10:40 pm

    At today’s commissioner meeting it was clarified that Cecil County, who put up the 750k to subsidize the easement for the federal gov’t on the McCoy property, does not “hold” the easement and has no say over the management of the land now or in the future. The Planning Dept. clarified that agreement was made exclusively between the federal government and the private land trust, and the agreement specifies that the federal government has the final say in the management of the land. It was also revealed that the commissioners were not given the agreement and did not read it prior to voting for it.

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