Environmental Issues > Urban Solutions Main Page > All Urban Solutions Documents

Contents page

Montgomery County Agricultural Reserve

Montgomery County, Maryland, which borders Washington, DC, is in many ways the quintessential suburban jurisdiction. Its central and southeastern sections, for example, have largely been consumed by the expanding Washington metropolis and contain all of the amenities -- and many of the problems -- that we associate with big-city suburbs.

But Montgomery is also home to something far less typical: the country's most successful farmland preservation program. The county's western and northern regions remain predominantly rural and, by and large, unchanged from earlier times. Here, family farms still dominate, with an average farm size of only 58 acres. Crop production is diversified, providing county residents with a variety of local products, as well as an important source of income -- up to $23 million in annual total gross productivity. When hikers gaze down from the landmark Sugarloaf Mountain, their vision takes in a scenic array of gently rolling hills and rich farmland.

  Photo of beautiful landscapes in Montgomery County.

Beautiful landscapes in Montgomery County.
Grant Dehart

Warning Signals
This has not happened by accident. A careful observer in 1979, when the program was conceived, would have noticed signs of changing times: here and there, single lots and small subdivisions were creeping along the frontages of rural roads. A sprinkling of large mansions on five- to ten-acre lots dotted the landscape. Maybe the newcomers were attracted by the panoramic views of Sugarloaf Mountain, or by the charm of living in a working rural countryside within commuting distance of Washington. But their growing presence threatened to create a conflict between the county's traditional rural character and its increasingly suburban nature.

When such a conflict develops at the edge of a growing metropolitan area, agriculture is usually the loser. As the prospect of development drives land prices higher, farmers' incentive to sell to developers intensifies. Property taxes may also rise dramatically, making it harder to eke out a profit from farming. In response to these pressures, some farms are turned into subdivisions, and general stores give way to big-box retailers. As suburbanization encroaches on the countryside, a feeling spreads among farmers that agriculture is doomed, and some begin to pull up root. Soon, the critical mass of farms and services necessary to sustain a viable agricultural community crumbles. To prevent this unraveling in its own agricultural sector, in 1980 Montgomery County launched an expanded agricultural preservation program.

Smart-Growth Features
  • Economic vitality of agriculture sustained at urban fringe
  • The most green space protected among all urban counties
  • Effective combination of regulatory and market-based tools

Wedges and Corridors
Montgomery County has a history of thoughtful, pioneering land use policies. As early as 1964, the county adopted a planning policy called Wedges and Corridors, in which development would be concentrated along transportation corridors, while wedges of preserved open space would separate the developed areas. In 1973, to assure that its most productive open spaces were indeed saved from development, the county also adopted a Rural Zone (encompassing most of the western and northern agricultural areas), which required a minimum five-acre lot size. Unfortunately, this requirement did not deter suburban-style development of large-lot housing. In only six years, between 1973 and 1979, Montgomery County lost 12,268 acres of farmland, most of which was located in the Rural Zone. Clearly, a new, more restrictive approach was needed.

The County Council adopted a new master plan in 1980, limiting development to one dwelling per 25 acres in what it called the Agricultural Reserve. The reserve expanded the boundaries of the Rural Zone, from 80,000 to approximately 93,000 acres, to encompass much of the county's remaining contiguous farmland and rural open spaces.

Downzoning (requiring larger parcels for each new house) lowers land prices, especially in areas such as Montgomery County, where land prices had already risen beyond their agricultural value. With the possibility of less subdivision, the speculative value of farmland decreases. Thus, landowners in the Agricultural Reserve would have suffered an economic blow with the more restrictive zoning -- and thus would have strongly opposed it -- without a mechanism for compensation. This mechanism, adopted in the 1979 master plan, was the Transferable Development Rights (TDR) system.

Although, with a few exceptions, properties in the Agricultural Reserve cannot be developed at more than one dwelling per 25 acres, under the TDR system landowners retain "development rights" at one dwelling per five acres that can be used elsewhere -- in what are called Receiving Areas. They can sell the excess development rights -- and thus recoup their losses -- to developers interested in building at densities higher than otherwise allowed, in other parts of Montgomery County. TDR Receiving Areas must be designated by the County Planning Board and Council and conform to local master plans. They are generally located where more development is seen as appropriate: where schools, roads, and utilities are already in place, or along major transportation corridors.

As of this writing, 20 years after the program started, more than 40,000 acres of farmland have been preserved in perpetuity through TDR transfers in Montgomery County. (Whenever TDRs are sold, they are permanently removed from the property.) Although their market consists only of the receiving areas designated by the county, the TDRs are valued and sold in an open market without government interference.

Project Data
  • 317,000 acres total land in county
  • 800,000 living in county
  • More than 90,000 acres legally protected from non-farm development

Approximately 10,000 additional acres of farmland have been kept in agricultural production through county and state conservation easement programs that allow farmers to voluntarily limit development on their property. Conservation easements also stay with the property in perpetuity, safeguarding working farms and open space from any future development activity. The easements, which are spelled out in legal contracts, may also require the implementation of certain land management practices, such as soil and water conservation plans.

Why would a farming family voluntarily give up its right to develop its land, and follow required land management practices? Beyond senti- mental reasons, such as wanting to keep the family farm as a working farm, it makes good economic sense. Selling conservation easements to the county on a 150-acre farm, for example, may generate as much as $400,000 outright -- a substantial sum for farmers, who often run into liquidity problems. There are tax benefits too. (These are, of course, much larger for those who choose to donate the easements.) And the conservation measures and land management practices, while conferring environmental benefits, can also lead to better yields.

Government Bureaucrats:the Farmer's Friends?
Although conservation easements offer economic benefits, farmers might still be hesitant to approach a government agency that they did not trust. They might worry about unreasonable requirements, extensive paperwork, or too much meddling in their affairs. They might fear losing control over their most prized possession, their land.

In Montgomery County, farmland preservation programs are not run by the planning or environmental agencies. Rather, it is the Agricultural Services Division of the Department of Economic Development that oversees both traditional agricultural economic assistance -- such as drought relief -- and the county's conservation easement programs. In addition, the department also acts as a clearinghouse for the state easement programs. This way, a farmer can do "one-stop shopping" and compare the multiple state and local easement programs.

Since they are in the business of promoting and safeguarding agriculture, the department's staff members speak the farmers' language, know the economics of agriculture, and are familiar figures in the farming community. As a result, many farmers have come to trust the agency. "We do things to help our farmers," says John Zawitoski, director of planning and promotion. "We may even take their side when they are dealing with another arm of the government, and act as their advocates."


Public sector: Agricultural Services Division, Montgomery County Department of Economic Development; Montgomery County Planning Board

Landscapes and a Way of Life Saved
Over the last 20 years, large tracts of rural areas around the Washington, DC, metropolitan area have fallen victim to an unprecedented rate of suburban and exurban development. Counties that have not taken strong preventive measures to protect farms and open space have gone through a profound change of character. Loudoun County, Virginia, for example, long known as serene horse country, is now under severe threat from a traffic-choked series of new subdivisions. The nation's third-fastest-growing county, Loudoun lost more than 20,000 acres of farmland in only ten years, between 1987 and 1997.

But, thanks to the forward-thinking policies of Montgomery County, most of the rural countryside in the Agricultural Reserve remains little-changed. Nature lovers still hike up Sugarloaf Mountain and enjoy views of an unspoiled countryside, or bicycle on quiet country lanes below. Children still delight in picking peaches and plums in the summer, and pumpkins at Halloween.

Meanwhile, farmers are adjusting to new market realities, but within a viable agricultural region. Some are shifting to flowers, sod, or specialty crops. "Agriculture has constantly been evolving," farmer Ben Allnut told The Washington Post.9 Ben Allnut's father grew corn, but he plants fruits and vegetables that supply local supermarkets. The family has been farming near Seneca Creek for 200 years. Since the farm is within the Agricultural Reserve, Allnut can focus on the operation of his farm without worries about infringing suburban sprawl.

SNAPSHOT: Smart Growth and Farmland
While the U.S. continues to enjoy the appearance of abundant farmland, the best of that land is being lost at an amazing rate. At the conclusion of exhaustive research on the subject, the American Farmland Trust (AFT) reported that from 1982 to 1992 we lost to urban and suburban development an average of 400,000 acres per year of "prime" farmland, the land with the best soils and climate for growing crops. This translates to a loss of 45.7 acres per hour, every single day. During that same period, we lost an additional 26,600 acres per year -- three more acres per hour, every single day -- of "unique" farmland, used for growing rare and specialty crops. Put another way, for each acre of prime or unique farmland that is being saved by various farmland protection programs across the county, three acres are lost to development.

To make matters worse, most of the country's prime farmland is located within the suburban and exurban counties of metropolitan areas. Such "urban-influenced" counties currently produce more than half the total value of U.S. farm production; their average annual production value per acre is some 2.7 times that of other U.S. counties. Yet, ominously, their population growth is also disproportionately high, over twice the national average. Counties with prime and unique farmland found by the Farmland Trust to be threatened by particularly high rates of current development collectively produce some 79 percent of our nation's fruit, 69 percent of our vegetables, 52 percent of our dairy products, and over one-fourth of our meat and grains.

Smart growth helps contain these trends. In California's Central Valley, for example, the Farmland Trust found that doubling the average density of new growth from three to a moderate six households per acre could save some 561,000 acres of the nation's most productive and threatened farmland and shrink the "zone of conflict" between urban and rural areas from 2.5 to 1.6 million acres. It also could save some $26 billion in direct sales of agricultural products, as well as an additional $41 billion in impacts to agricultural support businesses, by 2040.

Saving farmland produces other economic benefits, too. Additional research by AFT and others has found that, unlike residential development, farmland produces a net surplus in tax revenues for local governments, because service costs are lower.6


6. F. Kaid Benfield, Matthew D. Raimi, Donald D.T. Chen, Once There Were Greenfields: How Urban Sprawl is Undermining America's Environment, Economy, and Social Fabric, (New York: Natural Resources Defense Council, 1999), pp. 29-116 and pp. 137-160. American Farmland Trust, Farming On the Edge: A New Look at the Importance and Vulnerability of Agriculture Near American Cities, (Washington, DC: American Farmland Trust, 1994).

9. Stephen C. Fehr, "Montgomery's Line of Defense Against the Suburban Invasion," The Washington Post, March, 25, 1997, Sec. A, p. 01.

Back to contents page

Get Updates and Alerts

See the latest issue >

Kaid Benfield's Blog

Kaid Benfield writes about development, community and the environment on Switchboard.

Kaid's Recent Posts

New guide from ASLA highlights urban green, literally, in Portland
posted by Kaid Benfield, 10/27/14
Compact and connected communities improve public health, says new research
posted by Kaid Benfield, 10/20/14
For smart growth, not all urban density is created equal
posted by Kaid Benfield, 10/6/14

NRDC Gets Top Ratings from the Charity Watchdogs

Charity Navigator awards NRDC its 4-star top rating.
Worth magazine named NRDC one of America's 100 best charities.
NRDC meets the highest standards of the Wise Giving Alliance of the Better Business Bureau.

Donate now >

Share | |