In 1969, the Maryland legislature, led by Senator Bill James from Harford County and Senator Jim Clark from Howard County, created Program Open Space. A masterpiece of sensible yet visionary leadership, Program Open Space collects a fraction (1/2 of 1%) of the transfer tax paid when Maryland residents sell a home or piece of property. The money goes into a DEDICATED fund to protect farmland, high-value natural lands, and parks and recreation needs in every county in the state.
The program is beautiful in its simplicity. It keeps pace with state growth and development while it tied together a strong coalition of rural and urban residents, farmers, and conservationists. Program Open Space makes the statement — for some land, the highest and best use is NOT development. Program Open Space is a solemn promise to our children’s children that parks and open land will exist for their children. Over the years, this program gained national renown.
Unfortunately, over the years, administrations and legislatures raided the Open Space funds often promising to restore the monies in the future budgets. This situation has worsened in recent years. In his final budget, former Governor O’Malley, always a staunch supporter of Program Open Space swept half of all the transfer tax money to other uses. This year, despite Governor Hogan’s definitive campaign promise: “I pledge to never raid our state’s environmental trust funds,” his budget for FY 2016 cuts $155 million from the transfer tax revenue. Based on the long term plan adopted last year, this included a 35% reduction in state funding for farm easements despite the fact that 163 farm families from throughout the state are standing in line to voluntarily protect their farms. Not to be out done, there are calls from some in the General Assembly for funding caps, fiddling with the program’s allocation formula and outright elimination of hundreds of millions of dollars of promised repayments of Program Open Space funds.
It is time to say enough. Our need for food is not going away. Kids –and their parents – will always need parks and wide, open spaces to run and play. Headwaters without forest cover cease to purify our water. We must invest in land for purposes other than houses and commercial space.
Yes there are many needs in our state. But in 1969 thoughtful leaders made a promise to maintain farmland, parks and open spaces as Maryland grew and prospered. Are we the generation that breaks that promise?
NOTE: This Op-ed was featured in The Delmarva Farmer