Cumberland Times-News

Local News

May 16, 2013

Audit: State agency failed to resolve easements violations in timely manner

CUMBERLAND  — The state agency that helps fund and organize agricultural preservation in Allegany County and statewide has failed to ensure that easements violations were resolved in a timely manner, state auditors said. Easements are a crucial part of the program to protect farm and other agricultural lands in the state.

Protecting agricultural land forever is the goal of the program run by the Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Foundation. To achieve that goal, easements to the land are purchased from the owners. The easements specify that development of the land is prohibited in perpetuity. Once in a while, the terms of the easements are violated and auditors said the foundation isn’t doing a good job of tracking those violations and making sure they are resolved.

As of Jan. 31, the foundation database indicated approximately 281 unresolved violations. According to its management, 33 of these violations were duplicates, but of the remaining 248 violations, it considered 31 violations to be either high priority (such as subdivision violations) or medium priority (such as debris issues). According to foundation records, these violations have remained unresolved for periods of up to six years, the audit report read.

Enforcement of the easements, though, is handled at the local level. The local farmland protection boards must report such violations to the foundation, according to the audit.

The audit did not review or make any findings or examine local enforcement actions.

Officials from the foundation agreed with the audit findings and said they will correct the problem.

“MALPF concurs with the finding and acknowledges the need for better communication among staff for better follow-up and resolution of easement violations. MALPF has an existing database to record and monitor easement violations. ... The monitoring and enforcement coordinator will conduct a comprehensive review of the database three times a year, and MALPF administrators will commit to entering the violations that they identify into the database,” the auditors reported.

There are only a few easements to preserve agricultural land in Allegany County, and the planning office is responsible for monitoring those properties. Acting Planning Coordinator David Dorsey visits and confirms the status of the properties and easements.

“They’ve (the state) made it easier since they require an inspection of the property before the easement. It gives us baseline data to work from,” Dorsey said. Dorsey said that because of mineral rights issues, there have not been many recent farmland protection easements in the county.

There are only a handful of the easements in the county because, until recently, the calculation used to determine how much the landowner was paid worked against a decent price for landowners in the area, Dorsey said. That was a problem before the mineral rights issue came up, largely in connection with drilling for natural gas in Marcellus shale.

The audit was prepared by the Office of Legislative Audits of the Department of Legislative Services. The audit was released April 30.

Contact Matthew Bieniek at mbieniek@times-news.com.

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