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Farmland preservation efforts are working

February 02, 1999|By BRENDAN KIRBY

State and county governments have made an effort during the last decade to stem the loss of farmland, and several experts say it is working.

Eric Seifarth, Washington County's farmland preservation administrator, said the amount of farmland that has been permanently protected from development in the last nine years has outpaced the amount of land that has been developed.

In fiscal year 1997, the county purchased the development rights to more than 400 acres, he said. During the same period, 174 acres were converted to development.

Seifarth said much of the land that was sold to developers was inside the urban growth area. That is good because it steers construction to areas that have the roads, sewer lines and other systems to support development, he said.

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As a result, only 151 of the 754 acres of farmland converted to development in fiscal year 1998 was "agriculturally significant," Seifarth said.

Through so-called "easements," Washington County has permanently preserved about 10,000 acres of farmland. Another 20,000 acres are in 10-year preservation districts, which give farmers tax breaks for agreeing not to sell to developers.

This year, the county will have more federal, state and local money available for farmland preservation than ever before, Seifarth said.

"We're making progress. It's going to take a lot of time, though," he said.

Since 1992, Franklin County has restricted about 2,700 acres of farmland from development through the purchase of easements, said Planning Commission Director Phil Tarquino.

Tarquino acknowledged that it is a slow process, but he said it is keeping up with sprawl.

"That doesn't occur overnight, either," he said.

Washington County Agricultural Extension Agent Don Schwartz said some of the recently developed farmland in Washington County was land that already had been taken out of agriculture production.

The Agriculture Census showed that Washington County lost 41 farms between 1992 and 1997. Schwartz said that is probably the smallest decline in decades.

"That still raises eyebrows, but in the previous census, we dropped almost 100 farms," he said.

West Virginia does not purchase development rights, but a number of programs are designed to aid farmers.

Bill Bennett, executive director of the U.S. Farm Service Agency in Berkeley and Morgan counties, said area farmers who were hurt by the recent drought received money from a livestock assistance program.

Small hog farmers hurt by depressed prices have benefited from a $5 a head payment, Bennett said.

Bennett said there has been discussion in the West Virginia Legislature and among county governments of creating temporary preservation districts to trade tax breaks to farmers in exchange for an agreement not to develop their farmland.

"In the long run, I hope there's more of it," he said.

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