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W.Va. growth forum focuses on farmland preservation

January 27, 2001

W.Va. growth forum focuses on farmland preservation



By BOB PARTLOW / Staff Writer


SHEPHERDSTOWN, W. Va. - Farmland preservation emerged as a top issue among about 120 people who attended a forum on growth in the Eastern Panhandle on Saturday at Shepherd College.

After listening to speeches, the audience broke up into five groups. Preserving farmland was on the list of four of the five groups.

Jefferson County Planning Commissioner Dave Hammer discussed figures presented in a speech by Craig Yohn, West Virginia University's agricultural extension agent for Jefferson County.

"The cost of services for residential development is about $1.25 for every dollar that development produces," Hammer said. "For commercial and farm land, the figure is 25 to 35 cents. So any county that allows itself to be filled with residential development is heading right into bankruptcy."

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Yohn produced figures that showed many of the farms that are making the most money in West Virginia's three easternmost counties are run by people aged 55 and older.

"The issue is, when these farmers are ready to retire, what will happen?" Yohn said.

He said much of the farmland is in crops or cattle, making it more vulnerable to those who would find that kind of property most suitable for development.

The audience was asked to come up with solutions to the identified problems.

One idea often mentioned was the purchase of development rights to preserve land. That probably would require financial help from the state, some people said.

Professor Randall Rosenberger of West Virginia University said purchasing or transferring development rights or buying conservation easements are common ways of preserving farmland.

Another key issue was local control. In one group, several people said local residents need to take control of their land from the state. The issue was listed as important by three of the groups.

Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley, was one of those who sponsored the forum, along with WVU, Shepherd College and the Potomac Headwaters Resource Conservation and Development Region.

Unger said he plans to work for a law to allow "empowerment zones," where residents can vote to take control of land-use issues.

The state currently controls all issues unless legislators specifically gives the right to local governments.

"We need to create a framework where that can happen," Unger said.

He said he would work with Hammer, who was instrumental in the effort to pass the Farmland Preservation Act, on a new bill for local control.

"Why shouldn't a county be able to shape what it wants to do to compete with other counties in other states?" Hammer said.

Three of the five groups mentioned political action as one solution to solving many of the problems.

The idea also was listed by Rosenberger as one of four ways people "vote" on land-use issues.

He said they can vote by silence, vote to buy up land for preservation, vote for people who support what they want or vote with their feet - move to areas where they find living more to their liking.

He also said "growth is not a four-letter word. It is not inherently bad," but people must decide how they want to handle it, he said.

The forum was the first of what could become an annual gathering.

Unger said Shepherd College and WVU are working to create a formal structure for collecting data and sharing information so decision makers and residents can prepare agendas to take to Charleston.

He said his ultimate goal is to create a "think tank" at Shepherd that would focus on the issues of growth. The think tank could be used not only by those in the Eastern Panhandle, but elsewhere, he said.

The center could collect information on growth management tools used around the world and make the information available, he said. Then citizens can take action, he said.

"We've done a lot of visioning," he said. "But there never seems to be an implementation stage."

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