CUMBERLAND - The Allegany County Planning and Zoning Commission is looking at much of the LaVale comprehensive planning region as the county's first Rural Legacy Area.

The potential designation, discussed Monday during a commission work session, would allow property owners to sell conservation easements to the state in order to preserve land and water resources. The property owner, meanwhile, benefits by maintaining ownership of the land. The voluntary program allows the property owner to use the land for residential and economic purposes while receiving financial compensation from the state.

Phil Hager, county planning coordinator, said the average Rural Legacy Area state grant ranges between $250,000 and $1 million. The county, as administrator of the grant, would retain 3 percent of that cost to offset the expense of administration.

"This will not prevent someone from utilizing their property in a reasonable (manner)," Hager said. Potential uses could still include timbering and building homes, but "it will preclude them from building a large number of homes."

The potential study area encompasses 8,638 acres. Much of the area, Hager said, has slopes greater than 30 percent - too steep for development. Focusing on this area allows the county to study a region with a completed comprehensive plan.

"Nearly three-fourths has a slope of 20 percent or greater," Hager said. "Nearly 86 percent has a slope of 15 percent or greater."

Given the slope, Hager said a property owner's potential for return "is somewhat limited" and the Rural Legacy program would allow the property owner to receive compensation for not developing the land.

The cost of the program to the state, Hager said, is expected to be between $2,000 and $5,000 per acre.

Allegany is the only county in Maryland without a Rural Legacy Area. This fiscal year, the state allocated $21.9 million in Rural Legacy grant money.

The commission is expected to consider the issue further at its June 18 meeting. If authorized, county staff would begin establishing official boundaries, get county support and initiate contact with property owners in the affected area.

Hager said the county initially would be looking for property owners interested in the program. That initial interest, he said, would be "nonbinding."

The county is to be assisted by Lynda Eisenberg, a consultant to the comprehensive planning process and formerly a member of the review board for the Rural Legacy Area applications with the Maryland Department of Planning.

Donnelle Keech of The Nature Conservancy has offered help in applying for the same designation for the Town Creek Watershed in eastern Allegany County. She said the conservancy has considered that area as key because state planning officials have identified that section of the county as most likely to be developed. The area includes Fifteen Mile and Sideling Hill creeks.

While the Conservancy supports the county's plans to move forward with Rural Legacy elsewhere in the county, "we feel that the county's strongest application would come from Town Creek," Keech said.

Keech said she's not opposed to working with county officials during the application process of a Rural Legacy Area other than Town Creek. To date, she has not been asked to do so.

"We're obviously disappointed that the county hasn't been more interested in taking advantage of our offer to partnership," Keech said. "We put our staff resources and expertise on the table as something the county could take advantage of. So far, they have declined to do that."

Contact Kevin Spradlin at kspradlin@times-news.com.

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