Ag commissioner seeks support for new Farmland Protection Act

April 20, 2000|By ANDREW SCHOTZ

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - State Agriculture Commissioner Gus R. Douglass was in Martinsburg Wednesday to drum up support for the Voluntary Farmland Protection Act, under which farmers will be paid not to develop their property.

The act was approved by the state Legislature this year and signed by Gov. Cecil Underwood.

Participating farmers in the voluntary program would sell the government a permanent protective easement that would prevent development on the property.

The owner would be paid the difference between the agricultural value of the land and the potential commercial value.

There is no funding attached to the act yet. In an interview after his speech, Douglass said there was no money available in this year's state budget, so the law was pursued and enacted without it.

There will be matching money from the federal government, but Deputy Commissioner David Miller said other funding sources are still being investigated.


Still, three farmers with land "primarily" in Jefferson County are considering signing on, according to Douglass. He said all three intend to donate their easements, allowing the state to use that money to buy the rights to other properties.

Berkeley and Jefferson county commissioners have said they want to form local boards to enact the law. Douglass said Putnam County, which is also facing development pressure, is interested in doing the same.

Douglass, Miller and state Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley, were at the Holiday Inn Wednesday evening to explain the act and encourage farmers to join.

There were few questions from the small audience, but one strong objection.

Richard Burns, who owns and operates Burns Farm south of Charles Town with his brother, said only desperate farmers will take part.

"This sounds good to the farmer that's starving to death right now," he said. Burns didn't put himself in that class.

He said "it's a no-brainer" for farmers to wait while land values rise.

Burns, 53, and his brother, John Porter, 58, own 1,000 acres and rent 1,000 more. They use the land to grow corn, soybeans and wheat and to raise cattle.

Between them, the men have seven children who want to preserve the land but don't want to farm it, Burns said, which leaves him and his brother with a difficult decision when they retire.

Burns noted that the proposed 3,300-home subdivision called Hunt Field is about a half-mile away.

Douglass said during an interview that land values are not guaranteed to rise, comparing them to fluctuating technology stocks.

"You have to make a decision today," he said.

Also, the recent trend in Congress has been to rein in large-scale residential development, Douglass said. "You can't see cities just grow and grow."

Unger was one of the sponsors of the act, which was crafted with the help of a citizens' alliance he formed.

The Eastern Panhandle People's Empowerment Coalition (EPPEC) is made up of people who have never been involved in government and who represent a cross-section of the community, he said.

Douglass and Miller honored EPPEC Wednesday evening for its role in creating the farmland legislation.

The farmland protection committee was one of four in EPPEC. Unger said the others worked on legislation for litter, driving while under the influence of alcohol and school safety.

He said a DUI bill didn't make it out of the Senate Judiciary Committee while litter and school safety bills passed the Senate but weren't voted on in the House.

This year, the litter, school safety and DUI committees will continue to meet, Unger said. New committees will form to look at parks and recreation, senior services and privacy issues related to the Internet and telemarketing, he said.

Earlier Wednesday, Douglass addressed the West Virginia International Trade Development Council in Shepherdstown, W.Va.

He said that his office offers money to "cottage industry" businesses and will help them market their products to national and international buyers.

Douglass said there are many factors to consider in international trade, such as agricultural diseases and the foreign acceptance of genetically engineered crops.

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