The Montgomery County Council has approved an agricultural land easement program that officials say should help save more farm land in the fast-developing county.

But some farmers contend that the new program still may not be sufficient to halt the further loss of Montgomery's dwindling number of farms to development.

Under legislation unanimously approved by the County Council Feb. 16, the county as early as July plans to start using money from a new agricultural land preservation fund to pay farmers to keep their land open for agriculture.

In exchange, the county would acquire a permanent easement prohibiting development, although a farmer could still build one house per 20 acres for up to 10 of his children and construct housing for farm hands, according to the program's sponsor, council member Neal Potter. Participation in the program will be voluntary.

The money for the program will come primarily from a 5 percent transfer tax the state charges on the sales price of agricultural land when it is sold to developers. Half of the money collected in Montgomery goes to the county government, which must use it within three years to preserve farms or return the money to the state. Meg Riesett, director of Montgomery County's office of planning policies, said the county has accumulated $6 million from its portion of the state transfer tax. She said one reason the county set up the new program was so it wouldn't have to return $500,000 to be used to save farm land in other parts of the state.

"We were at the point of having to do that and we didn't want to," Riesett said. "We had some staffing and educational programs, but no acquisition programs. This is a new channel for the county to spend that money."

The new preservation program also would help stop the rapid loss of farm land to development by improving upon a similar, but ineffective, state easement program, according to Timothy Warman, agricultural resources coordinator for the county's economic development office, which will oversee the program. The county has been losing more than 3,000 acres of agricultural land a year. In 1979, the county had 132,000 acres of farm land; by 1987, that figure had dropped to 107,000 acres. Currently, the county has 650 part-time and full-time farmers.

"There is a lot of red tape and delays for farmers to get into the {state} program," which has discouraged many farmers from participating, he said. The state requires landowners to form agricultural districts in which farmers in a specific area agree not to sell to developers for at least five years before the state will consider buying easements from them. Creating agricultural districts and negotiating with landowners over the price of the easements can take up to two years, Potter said.

Furthermore, the state tries to pay as little as it can for easements, so it usually buys them in parts of the state where land isn't worth as much as in Montgomery County, Potter said. Consequently, the state has bought only 1,680 acres for easements in Montgomery out of 88,000 acres in agricultural zones in the 10 years that its program has been operating.

In contrast, Potter said the county program will take half the time the state does to buy an easement because the county will not require that farmers set up an agricultural district as a condition for selling an easement. Warman said the county also will pay more for easements than the state. The state currently pays as much as $1,800 per acre for an easement; the county would pay $5,000 or more, Warman said. The measure also allows the county to add 15 percent to the state's purchase price as a way to encourage farmers to use that program and to help stretch county dollars.

Phil Tierney, director of the county's zoning and administrative hearings office and chairman of a task force that evaluated the county's farm preservation efforts, said the easement program will enhance the county's transferable development rights (TDR) program, another tool to preserve agricultural land. Under that program, rural landowners who agree not to develop their land can sell development rights to builders, who can then use them to build developments denser than zoning permits in specially designated areas.

But the number of available TDRs has exceeded demand. Consequently, only 16,000 out of 107,000 acres of farm land in the county has been saved through the transferable development rights program.

However, the legislation does not permit landowners to sell both a TDR (a TDR is issued for every five acres a farmer agrees not to develop) and an easement. Consequently, by buying easements, the county would preserve land that could not be saved under the transferable development rights program, Riesett said.

Warman said the county expects to preserve up to 2,000 acres of farm land a year through purchase of the easements.

But some farmers doubt that the program will be effective. David Martin, a farmer in Damascus, said he "thinks it's the stupidest thing I've ever heard of. The value of land keeps going up."

Martin noted that land in his portion of the county now sells for $10,000 an acre. "But if you sold an easement to it, then the land wouldn't be worth more than what it is to farm it -- $700 to $800 an acre," he said.

He said that most farmers would get more by holding onto their land and selling it to developers. David Buric, another farmer, said most farmers also wouldn't want to sell an easement and "box in" descendants who would inherit a farmer's land but might not want to stay in agriculture.

Said Martin: "Some of the best farm land in the U.S. is here in Montgomery County. But I don't think the county will be able to hold back development."