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