For those who know him, there was never any doubt that former state senator James Clark Jr. would do all he could to help preserve the 375-acre Howard County farm that has been in his family for three generations. Last week, he made it official.

With the end of the year approaching, Clark sold to the county government the development rights on his property, which sits at Rte. 108 and Centennial Lane, thereby ensuring that no one will be able to build houses there.

Two of his neighbors, Duane Alexander and Thomas Scrivner, sold their development rights at the same time, adding another 300 acres to the county's stock of permanently protected agricultural land.

But Clark took his commitment a step further. He asked the county to pay him just $3,000 an acre -- $1,750 an acre less than the county could have paid and $4,600 less than the price to which he was entitled based on a recent appraisal.

"It sounds kind of corny, but getting the ultimate dollar is not the only thing," Clark said. "If I was really into it for the money, I could have sold to a developer and moved away."

Dennis White, administrator of the county farmland preservation program, said that by lowering his asking price, Clark made possible a deal that otherwise would have been impossible.

The county encourages farmers to remain on their land by paying them part of the difference between a parcel's market value as farmland and what it would be worth if it were subdivided for residential or commercial development. Clark's farm -- which had zoning approval that could have led to one house on every three acres -- had been appraised for development at $9,500 an acre, while it is worth $1,900 an acre if left for agricultural purposes.

In theory, Clark should have received $7,600 an acre to make up for the lost development rights. But because of a provision in the program that limits how much the county can pay to 50 percent of its market value to developers, White would have been able to offer just $4,750 an acre. As it was, the $3,000-an-acre price finally agreed on was $1,000 higher than anything the county had paid before.

County Council member Charles Feaga, a farmer who represents most of the county's rural western end, said the disparity is the result of the county's skyrocketing land prices. He said he is considering introducing legislation that would remove the ceiling, something he believes is necessary if the county wants to compete with developers on their own terms.

The three sales -- the only ones made to the government in 1987 -- provided one of the few bright spots in what was an otherwise dismal year for farmland protection advocates. In 1986, the county had acquired nine easements. Perhaps even more telling is that last year no farmers enrolled their land in agricultural preservation districts -- the first step toward selling development rights.

Although Clark was the prime force behind the state's 10-year-old farmland protection program, as well as its first participant, he said he waited to make his sale until after he retired from the state Senate in 1986.

Sources said his property, which is located just across a heavily traveled road from Columbia in an area that has been overtaken by residential development, is probably the most valuable piece of rural real estate in the county.