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Franklin County focuses on farmland preservation

January 17, 2000|By DON AINES

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. - As development continues to bite pieces out of the landscape, Franklin County, with help from the state, is pledging an increased focus on farmland preservation.

When the 2000 county budget was unveiled last month, Commissioner G. Warren Elliott predicted the county would preserve more farmland this year than in any of the previous 10 years.

County Senior Planner Sherri Clayton said the county plans to spend about $2.4 million this year to preserve a dozen farms comprising 1,800 acres.

The state and county pledge was illustrated when owners of two Franklin County farms slated for preservation this year met with Gov. Tom Ridge at the opening ceremonies for the Pennsylvania Farm Show in Harrisburg.

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Stanley and Gina Meyers and Micah and Debbie Meyers, partners in the Meyersland Dairy in Peters Township, and Eugene and Virginia Hege, owners of a Guilford Township farm, were among 17 county officials and residents at the ceremony where Ridge announced plans to preserve 100 farms by Earth Day on April 22, Elliott said.

The Meyers partners, who own the farm with their parents, Marvin and Martha, say the farm has been in and out of their family's hands since the 1920s. Stanley Meyers said his grandfather sold the farm in the 1950s to Bethlehem Steel, which wanted land in that area for the limestone underneath.

The steel company, however, determined it no longer needed the limestone deposits for steel manufacturing and sold the land back to the family in 1988, he said.

"Since we bought this, we did a lot of work and spent a lot of money getting it suitable for cropping," Meyers said. Work included removing limestone outcroppings and extensive waterway work to cut soil erosion, he said.

Now it is prime farmland. "We'd like to see it stay that way," Meyers said.

The dairy has a herd of about 400 cows, heifers and calves, he said.

Clayton said the 177-acre Meyers' farm will be submitted to the Pennsylvania State Agricultural Land Preservation Board in February. The Hege's 138-acre farm and a 168-acre farm belonging to A. Henry and Joan Brechbill of Guilford Township will be submitted to the board in March, she said.

"With our three farms we can have ready, we will do more than our share and add 469 acres of good Franklin County farmland to our growing list of preserved farms," said Elliott, the only county commissioner on the state preservation board.

If the farms are accepted for the program, it will raise the county's total of preserved land to 25 farms with 3,637 acres.

Preserving the farms involves having the county and state buy the development rights. The price is based on the difference in the lands' appraised value for farming and its value if sold for commercial development.

Although the county has not reached settlement with the owners, the rights will cost about $620,000, or approximately $1,300 an acre, Clayton said.

This year the county has budgeted $200,000 for its contribution to farmland preservation. That will be combined with state money from a tax on cigarettes and a special allocation from the General Assembly last year that included $1.4 million for the county.

Clayton said the state has earmarked an additional $100 million for agricultural preservation over the next five years. The allocation formula for counties is based on their local match, realty transfer taxes and gross farm production.

In 1998 county farmers earned $210 million from dairy, livestock and crop sales, according to Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture figures. It is the county's largest industry.

The pace of farmland preservation in the county has picked up in recent years, according to Clayton. From 1990-97, the average was about 265 acres a year. That jumped to 797 acres in 1998 and was 634 acres in 1999.

There are about 1,400 farms with 240,000 acres in the county. Clayton said 72 farms are on the preservation waiting list.

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