Funding Pledged For Land Protection

By Dan Zak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 29, 2006

St. Mary's County will receive $1.8 million from Maryland's Rural Legacy Program to invest in new and existing land preservation plans, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) announced last week.

The newly designated Mattapany Rural Legacy Area -- 13,000 acres along the Chesapeake Bay that stretch from the southern tip of Patuxent River Naval Air Station to Ridge and St. Jerome Creek -- will receive $1.5 million. The established Huntersville Rural Legacy Area was awarded $300,000.

County Commissioners President Thomas F. McKay (R-At Large) trumpeted the funding Thursday during a visit with fellow commissioners to the Sivak Farm, a family-owned vegetable-growing operation in the Mattapany area. In an announcement at the farm, McKay said the commissioners will begin an initiative to match the award with $1 million in county funds earmarked for agricultural preservation.

"We're going to grow, we're going to be a pro-business and pro-Navy community, but we're also going to preserve land. They're not mutually exclusive goals," McKay said to a gathering of officials and landowners as aircraft from the neighboring base passed overhead through the cold, cloudless sky.

The Rural Legacy Program, which allocates state funds for easements and outright purchases to protect land vulnerable to urban sprawl, spread a little more than $14 million among 14 Maryland counties for 2006. St. Mary's County received the year's second-highest grant, after Baltimore County. Charles County was awarded $750,000 to continue preservation efforts in the Zekiah Swamp watershed.

In St. Mary's, most of the money will be used to buy the development rights to privately held land in the Mattapany area to prevent building that would encroach on the Chesapeake shoreline or the Navy air station; 423 acres in the area already are under contract to be protected.

"There's a huge amount of pressure on this land," said Fletcher Veitch, who owns 100 acres of woods next to the Sivak Farm. "I think it's a great thing that these landowners will be able to recoup some of their investment without damage to the land."

The funding announced by the governor's office marked a break with the county's recent experience with the Rural Legacy Program.

Over the past three years, St. Mary's officials have had difficulty obtaining state funding because of the county's rural preservation district zoning, which allows one home per five acres. The Rural Legacy Advisory Committee, which vets grant applications, prefers to award funding to areas that have lower-density zoning for rural preservation, such as one home per 20 acres, according to committee Chairman Bruce Fleming.

The county previously applied to designate a larger legacy area around the St. Mary's River watershed, but the committee wanted a more focused plan, said county agriculture specialist Donna Sasscer.

During 2005, Sasscer and other officials revised the county's strategy and identified the Mattapany area with help from the committee, which was swayed by the area's green infrastructure and non-tidal wetlands bordering the Chesapeake as well as by the testimony of landowners and land-use experts.

"The first couple years I was in office, we went in front of the board and had no impact," McKay said in a telephone interview. "This is a major victory in terms of turning the program around."

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