Howard County's agricultural preservation program is pursuing its biggest land deal ever: the purchase of development rights to a 930-acre research farm run by the University of Maryland.

The deal would eliminate the possibility that the farm, in the heart of the county between Columbia's subdivisions and the semi-rural western region, would have to make way for bulldozers. The deal also would reaffirm "the county's commitment, and the state's commitment, to agriculture in central Maryland," said John W. Musselman, administrator of the county preservation program.

But the deal, which could cost the county $6 million, might fuel questions concerning the price of land preservation, especially as the county struggles with what County Executive Charles I. Ecker (R) has called a "fiscal emergency."

"I've already gotten a call from inside the government from someone who wants to know about the cost," Musselman said.

In recent weeks, two County Council members, both of whom said they support buying the university farm's development rights, have raised questions about the program.

Council Chairman C. Vernon Gray (D-District 3) asked during Monday's council meeting for estimates about the program's long-term costs because "we are talking about people making financial commitments that our grandchildren will be asked to keep."

Council member Paul R. Farragut (D-District 4) said he wants to review how prices are set and land is selected for the program. "I'm not convinced that we have a problem, but I would like an overview and progress report," he said.

Farragut said council members encouraged university officials a year ago to preserve the farm so it did not fall victim to the development pressures that led university officials to sell part of a 176-acre horse farm that the school owns in the eastern part of the county.

"I didn't want to see that happen again," he said.

The university farm, formally known as the Central Maryland Research and Education Center, is used for dairy and crop research. The farm is home to about 225 cows, 100 of which produce milk, according to the farm's research manager, Tom Moreland.

Moreland said the university is interested in selling its development rights, in part to help it establish a new center to study agricultural automation. The farm is already experimenting with a robotic system that milks cows.

"There is some thought that we can use the proceeds to purchase some of the equipment we would like," he said.

The deal would have to be approved by the university's Board of Regents and a state public works panel as well as by the county.

Howard County's preservation program has bought the development rights to 10,170 acres of farmland since it was approved by voters in 1978.

Development rights for another 2,400 acres, not counting the research farm, is in the process of being bought, Musselman said.

The program has been so successful that the County Council increased its preservation goal last year from 20,000 to 30,000 acres.

Howard and Montgomery counties have self-sustaining preservation programs, but Prince George's County has no program to buy development rights.

Anne Arundel County is developing a program in conjunction with a state preservation program, according to Paul W. Scheidt, the executive director of the Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Foundation.

In Howard County, land has been bought for $1,000 to $6,000 an acre, Musselman said. Program officials determine a fair price, and if given approval by the county executive and the County Council, pay the landowner over 30 years. Once the county buys the rights, it retains them permanently.

Funds for the program come from a part of the county's tax on real estate transactions, and by law cannot be used for other projects.

As a result, Musselman said, the preservation program is expected to end the fiscal year with $17 million in the bank.

"We are in very, very strong financial shape," he said, adding, "This program is not getting out of hand. It is getting put in place."