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Ridge plan to save farmland requires guaranteed funding

December 08, 1999

When the governors of Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia met Tuesday to ratify a new agreement to protect the Chesapeake Bay, Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening's insistence on measurable goals for reducing the speed at which farms are being developed was seen as a possible bar to a new pact. For Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, the issue is one that's already sparked a fight with his legislature's Democrats.

Whatever compromises emerge, the future of the family farm does not look bright. Prices have remained stead, or in some cases fallen, while the cost of equipment fertilizer and compliance with new regulations has risen.

Partially as a result of that, The Associated Press reports that between 1992 and 1997, 16 million acres of land - forest, farms and other open space - were converted to new development. That's about 3.2 million acres per year, compared to 1.4 million per year in the 10 years between 1982 and 1992.

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On the list of states losing open space to development, Pennsylvania was rated No. 2, losing 224,640 acres per year between 1992 and 1997. Texas was No. 1 with 243,900 acres a year during that same time period.

Restricting the development of farmland would be tough in any case, because for farmers whose children don't want to continue farming, selling out is the only option, and developers pay the highest prices. Without some incentive, farm preservation isn't going to happen.

Ridge's proposal would spend $646 million in the next five years on his "Growing Greener" program, with 73 percent of the cash coming from the state's general fund. Democrats wanted a portion of the state's real estate transfer tax dedicated to the program, but Ridge has balked.

Their argument, which makes sense to us, is that without dedicated funds, the farmland preservation funds could dry up during the next economic downturn. That's just when hard-pressed farmers will need it the most, and we urge the governor not to leave farmland preservation vulnerable to the political winds of change any more.

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