Members of a Howard County farmland protection board will be able to reap the benefits of the $3 million program they administer under a controversial measure approved tonight by the county council.

The council voted 4 to 1 to allow the seven members of the county's Agricultural Land Preservation Board, some of whom are full-time farmers, to participate in the board's innovative program to safeguard farmland in this predominantly rural county.

Until now, members of the agricultural board were excluded from joining the program, which permits farmers to sell the development rights to farmland, enabling the county to keep the land from being used for other purposes, such as housing or industry. The amount paid for development rights is set by a formula tied to an independent appraisal of the land; recently, farmers have been paid $800 to $1,300 an acre for the rights, according to a member of the board.

Lloyd Knowles, the only council member voting against the law change, said it would create "an apparent conflict of interest."

"The penalty for being on this board has always been exclusion from the program," Knowles said in an earlier interview. "The mandate is to oversee, not to participate in the program."

The agricultural board's program is unique in the state and one of only three nationwide--the others are in New York and Oregon.

The year-old Howard program is particularly important in this county, where roughly one-third of Howard's 164,000 acres are eligible for protection by the agricultural board, officials said. The county has already acquired development rights to nearly 2,000 acres, according to officials.

One agricultural board member, who already is contemplating selling the easement rights to her property to the county, has insisted there would be no conflict of interest in her participation in the program.

"How can you have a board for farmers, but not allow all farmers the chance to be in the program," said Nancy (Polly) Moore, who with her husband manages a 289-acre farm near Lisbon in western Howard County.

Moore, whose husband is a fourth-generation farmer, said she and other farm board members have the expertise to judge the merits of all requests to join the farm preservation program.

Two other agricultural board members active in farming also are reportedly interested in participating in the program.

The law change approved tonight is expected to be quickly signed by County Executive J. Hugh Nichols, who introduced the legislation.