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Franklin County farmland in jeopardy

March 31, 1997

By LISA GRAYBEAL

Staff Writer, Waynesboro

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. - If Franklin County continues to lose farmland at the current rate of 4,000 acres a year, as reported in the federal Census of Agriculture, there will be none left in 63 years.

State and local officials say they can envision a grim future as the county's 254,000 acres of agricultural land are steadily being lost to development.

"I know we're losing land," said William Reagan, senior agent for Penn State Cooperative Extension in Franklin County. "I can't see that it's going to get better. It's going to get worse,"

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Franklin County's data is consistent with a report released last month by American Farmland Trust, a private nonprofit farmland conservation organization based in Washington, D.C. That report rated the Northern Piedmont area, spanning parts of Maryland, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Virginia, as the second most threatened agricultural region in the nation.

The conservation organization reports that "urban sprawl" from major metropolitan regions such as Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, are encroaching on the area's most fertile farmland.

"Acre by acre, mid-Atlantic farmland is being overrun and destroyed by scattershot suburban development," said Jill Schwartz, the organization's mid-Atlantic field director. "This kind of rapid, ill-planned development is costly agriculturally, economically, environmentally and socially,"

The statistics, in a state that ranks among the top 10 producers per acre of farmland in the country, have prompted officials at all level of government to make saving farmland a priority.

Programs such as Pennsylvania State Farm Land Preservation and the designation of agricultural security districts are aimed at securing the land by giving farmers incentives to keep it for agricultural use.

The preservation program works by offering to purchase the development rights - at no more than $10,000 an acre - from the owner of the agricultural property.

So far, 12 Franklin County farms totaling 1,600 acres are included in the farmland preservation program, which prevents any kind of development on the land.

Four farms, containing another 400 acres, are under sales agreements for farmland preservation and 50 other farms, totaling approximately 8,500 acres, are on file with county Planning Director Phil Tarquino for future consideration.

"If we don't do it now . . . In future years we'll be sad that we didn't preserve this land," said Franklin County Commissioner G. Warren Elliott.

This year, the county budgeted $91,000 as its contribution to the preservation program, almost double the amount budgeted in previous years, Elliott said.

The state matches the county's contribution.

Approximately 90,000 acres of county farmland are registered in agriculture security areas that exempt the property owners from nuisance ordinances.

"Even at that we're still losing ground," Elliott said.

Take a drive through Franklin County, which ranks second in dairy, peach and apple production in the state, and it's not difficult to spot housing developments on land where fields of corn used to grow, Reagan said.

"Once it starts, it's hard to stop," Reagan said of development.

Some of the best farmland in the county, located around Greencastle, Pa., Marion, Pa., Chambersburg and Shippensburg, Pa., contains fertile limestone soil that runs right along I-81, Reagan said.

Acres of "good ag" land are constantly threatened by development originating from the interstate, he said.

"We've put a lot of pressure on our best soil," Reagan said.

State and county officials blame unlimited and mismanaged residential growth as the primary reason for the loss of farmland.

"I've been saying it for 40 years," Reagan said. "We need better planning and better land use."

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