Calvert County Farm Bureau President Jason Leavitt
Calvert County Farm Bureau Board of Directors President Jason Leavitt

Prince Frederick, MD – With the Maryland General Assembly preparing for its 2018 session and the Calvert County Commissioners ready to hold their first meeting of the new year, many of the county’s local farmers took an opportunity to let the elected officials know about their priorities.

All five county commissioners and four of the five lawmakers representing Calvert in Annapolis attended the Wednesday evening, Jan. 3 Calvert County Farm Bureau’s annual Legislative Dinner. The event was held at Mt. Olive United Methodist Church in Prince Frederick. Several other local elected officials and county government staff members were in attendance. 

Bureau officials expressed concerns about the declining fortunes in Calvert’s once-promising Agricultural Preservation Program. “It’s a complicated situation with a lot of moving parts,” said Calvert Farm Bureau Board of Directors President Jason Leavitt.

According to the Calvert County Government web site, the county “created the first land preservation program in Maryland and currently has the most active transferable development rights (TDRs) program in the state. The TDR program allows a land owner to sell the development potential to another party. The sale requires the recording of restrictive covenants in land records permanently subjecting the property to development restrictions in perpetuity. Subject to County regulations, a TDR purchaser can use TDRs to attain higher lot density on another property. The TDR program goal is to deter development of farms and forest lands to areas targeted for residential and commercial growth. The County’s program works toward a goal of 40,000 acres preserved.”

Calvert’s agriculture picture changed just before the new millennium when state leaders created a tobacco buyout program, which had its origins at the federal level. Farms have transitioned to other crops and specialties, but the change has posed economic challenges. Additionally, the global and state economies, which are in recovery, and Calvert’s residential growth control measures, have adversely impacted the value of TDRs. “There has got to be middle ground in there somewhere,” said Leavitt. “I think it’s important that Farm Bureau becomes part of the solution.”

Leavitt suggested the leaders of Calvert’s farming community and the Calvert County Commissioners hold a work session to determine how to proceed with the Agricultural Preservation and TDR programs. Commissioners’ President Evan K. Slaughenhoupt Jr. [R – District 3] told the gathering that the proposed work session is possible.

Maryland Farm Bureau Director of Government Relations Colby Ferguson attended the event and urged Calvert officials to conduct a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) Analysis of the agriculture community. Ferguson said “zoning roadblocks” might be causing impedance to the potential establishment of several agribusinesses. He cited three priorities of Maryland Farm Bureau in the upcoming session—expanding agriculture education, improving agriculture viability and lower agriculture’s cost share for the Environmental Protection Agency-mandated Maryland Watershed Implementation Plan. Additionally, the state bureau is working with the Department of Natural Resources to reduce statewide crop damage by deer. “It’s really gotten out of control,” said Ferguson, who added the deer who feast on farm crops have created an estimated $60 million problem for state agriculture. Ferguson opined that the problem could not be solved with the state’s traditional hunting season.

Other issues discussed during the question and answer session included improvements to Route 231, restoration of funding for Calvert’s mosquito control program and potential impacts of the recently passed federal tax cut. A question from the floor from former Calvert Farm Bureau president Susie Hance Wells concerned the county commissioners’ budget plans for the added revenue from Dominion Energy Cove Point. “That money has already been spent,” said Slaughenhoupt, adding that the board’s intention to dedicate funding to county government’s post-employee benefits is getting “the lion’s share” of the first year’s allocation. “We’ll see what happens next,” Slaughenhoupt added.

Commissioner Mike Hart [R – District 1] called the Dominion allocation “a blessing and a curse.” Hart stated that as a result of the previous economic downturn, county government officials have to use the windfall to address some of the needs—such as infrastructure—that languished due to lack of funds. “The money is going into the county,” said Hart.

One of the more provocative exchanges during the question and answer session was between Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. [D – District 27] and Delegate Mark N. Fisher [R – District 27C] in regards to the recently passed federal tax reform. Armed with copies of a story from the Maryland Public Policy Institute by Dr. Daniel J. Mitchell, Fisher indicated the Democratic-controlled state legislature could negate an estimated $30 billion in federal tax relief over a 10-year period with an automatic state tax increase. “We have a lot of work to do this session so that tax cut won’t be taken away by Annapolis,” said Fisher. “We have to live within our means.”

“It’s going to affect everybody differently,” said Miller, who added Maryland’s larger jurisdictions will be hurt the most and the General Assembly is likely going to have to cope with looming budget deficits. Fisher countered that by pointing out that most of Maryland’s annual operating budget is already spent before a new fiscal year begins. Noting the nation’s improving economy and Miller’s prediction more deficits were in store for Maryland’s government, Fisher asked, “how is that possible?”

Miller reminded Fisher that a significant portion of Maryland’s economy is tethered to the federal government. “We’re going to work together,” Miller promised.

In agreeing with the notion that both county and state governments must live within their means like farmers do, Delegate Jerry Clark [R-District 29C] observed, “when there’s a large pot of money it’s real easy to stand up and say ‘yes.’ But you have to say ‘no.’ ”

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