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Some fear farm program could devalue land

June 12, 2002|by TARA REILLY

tarar@herald-mail.com

The agricultural business is surviving in Washington County for now, but farmers fear that proposed changes to the zoning ordinance intended to protect farmland from development would devalue their property, farming officials said at a Tuesday morning meeting of the Washington County Commissioners.

The proposed changes would limit the number of building lots allowed per acre should farmers choose to sell the land, Planning and Community Development Director Bob Arch said Tuesday afternoon.

That would be a burden on farmers who were hoping to sell their land and use the money for retirement or to ease financial hardships, opponents have argued.

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Dairy farmer David Herbst said at the meeting that the changes would be a nuisance to farmers and that he supports preserving the land instead.

Herbst was responding to County Commissioners President Gregory I. Snook, who asked whether the proposed changes would hurt or help farmers.

"If we have to sell ... we want to sell it to the highest bidder," Herbst said.

The proposed changes include limiting property owners in agricultural preservation zones to one home per 10 acres. The current limit is one home per acre.

"We don't want one in 10," Herbst said. "If you got one on every 10 acres ... that's enough to be a big pain in the butt."

On the other hand, Herbst said, farmers don't want homes scattered throughout farmland, putting the County Commissioners in a bind over whether to approve the changes.

Herbst said people who move into the developments have a hard time adjusting to living near farms, for reasons such as the smell.

"Anything out of the ordinary and they want to complain about it," he said.

The Washington County Planning Commission endorsed the changes, which are part of the county's comprehensive plan, but it's up to the County Commissioners to make the final decision.

Herbst suggested that more farmers take part in the Agricultural Land Preservation program, which allows them to sell the developmental rights of the land and permanently protect it from development.

The state and county pay the cost of preserving the land.

Herbst said the county could support farmers by increasing the funding for the easements.

"Agricultural land preservation is the best comprehensive plan that we got going right now," he said.

Eric Seifarth, the county's land preservation coordinator, said the County Commissioners face a tough task in deciding what's best for farmers.

"How do you solve the problem, and who is going to pay for it?" Seifarth said after the meeting.

Commissioner Bert Iseminger said during the meeting that he supports preserving farmland, but finding the money for it is a difficult task.

"I think it's a wonderful program, but the money's just not there to fund it," Iseminger said.

He said farmers are the backbone of Washington County and that he hoped the industry would continue to survive in the area. He also said residents should be willing to support the preservation program.

"They got to be willing to dedicate some of their tax dollars to agricultural preservation and maintain the rural atmosphere," Iseminger said.

Washington County Extension Agent Don Schwartz said Tuesday night that he thinks county residents would lend their support.

"The folks that live here in the county have never opposed anything that's been done in the county to preserve or enhance agricultural land," Schwartz said. "Sometimes they raise some questions ... but they have never really said 'This is ridiculous, we want houses from wall to wall.'"

He said he thinks county residents also would support a push from the County Commissioners to increase funding for the preservation program. He said the more agricultural land is preserved, the more development would be pushed into growth areas.

"It makes their life easier," he said.

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