A Not-So-Happy Anniversary

Vincent Cordova stacks crates of peaches he picked for Homestead Farms, one of 577 working farms in Montgomery County's agricultural reserve.
Vincent Cordova stacks crates of peaches he picked for Homestead Farms, one of 577 working farms in Montgomery County's agricultural reserve. (James M. Thresher)

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By Nancy Trejos
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 4, 2005

Montgomery County's agricultural reserve is home to 577 farms and 350 horticultural enterprises, 12,000 horses and 2,201 head of cattle. Its rolling hills, rustic roads and pockets of open space make up one-third of the county's land area.

So when Barnesville illustrator Tina Thieme Brown embarked on a year-long project to create a map of the county's 93,000-acre expanse -- where development is restricted to one housing unit per 25 acres -- she knew it wouldn't be easy.

"It was a little overwhelming at first," she said.

With input from naturalists, farmers and county officials, Brown created a map that depicts the roads that link the more developed, suburban "downcounty" to the less built-out, rural "upcounty." The map shows the reserve's reservoirs and rivers, its farms and nurseries, its historical sites, and its flora and fauna.

"What I'm hoping is that we have created enough of a pictorial history . . ." she said. "The hope is that people will get out here and dig a little deeper."

That's the goal of county officials as they observe the 25th anniversary of the agricultural reserve, the most prominent of land-preservation efforts in the metropolitan region. Through such events as farm tours, lectures, and hikes, officials said, the county will step up efforts to educate downcounty residents about the merits of the agricultural reserve. County officials estimate that the reserve contributes about $250 million annually to the county's economy.

"I think that many of the farms that we have today wouldn't be here if the ag reserve had not been created," said Jeremy Criss, the county's agricultural services chief.

Since 1980, the county has offered farmers incentives to not sell their land to developers. One incentive program allows landowners to sell builders transferable development rights that can be used to construct housing units in other, more urban areas of the county rather than within the reserve. Officials have also restricted development in communities buffering the reserve, creating such areas as rural cluster zones, where housing is restricted to one unit per five acres.

Yet even as the county touts its land-preservation efforts, there is evidence that the pressure to develop the land continues to be a threat and that farming has become a more difficult enterprise. Though the market value of agricultural products sold grew from $28 million to $42 million from 1997 to 2002, the amount of farmland dipped from 77,266 acres to 75,077 acres in that time, according to Census of Agriculture figures released last year by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Criss said the county recognizes that it is going to lose some farm acreage and hopes to have 70,000 acres protected by 2010.

"Think about it: residential development in Montgomery County. We have extreme pressures on land," Criss said. "We're so close to the nation's capital. All of those factors contribute to the loss of acres . . . . We're going to see development continue."

"There's a lot of different things going on," said Terry Cummings, director of the Poplar Spring Animal Sanctuary, a nonprofit animal refuge inside the reserve in Poolesville. "There's so many people moving to this area and huge pressure to build. There's not much space in Montgomery County and there's a huge area here and people say, 'Why not use it?' "


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