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Preservation program low on revenue

August 26, 2002|by TARA REILLY

tarar@herald-mail.com

Limited funding for Washington County's Agricultural Land Preservation Program has caused the County Commissioners to cut back on the number of farms that can be protected from development this fiscal year.

Eric Seifarth, the county's land preservation administrator, said he thinks the county will only have enough money to enter three farms in the program in fiscal 2003.

Those farms total 627 acres, according to county documents.

About 40 farm owners, with more than 4,500 acres, have applied to the program for this fiscal year, Commissioner Bert Iseminger said.

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The county's goal is to eventually have 50,000 acres protected from development, he said.

Property owners can enter their farmland into the Agricultural Land Preservation Program under the agreement that it cannot be developed for at least five years.

To receive tax credits, the landowner is required to commit the property to only agricultural use for 10 years.

In return, the owner becomes eligible to sell the development rights of the land to the Agricultural Land Preservation Foundation, according to the county's planning department.

The amount of funding for the preservation program depends on how much money is generated by the agricultural transfer tax, which is determined by the amount of farmland that is developed. It's a process Iseminger called self-defeating.

"Our money is strictly based on how many acres of agriculture is developed," Iseminger said. "It's a self-defeating tax. For us to generate that revenue, we have to lose more farmland to development."

Iseminger said he'd rather have the money come from the county's general fund budget to protect farmland than depend on the tax.

"I'm sorry to see the land turn into development, but that's how we get our money" (for the preservation program), he said.

In the last four years, the county has twice put money from the general fund toward the land preservation program, he said.

The County Commissioners voted Tuesday to have 10 of the 40 properties appraised for the program, but Seifarth said there's no way the county can accept all 10.

"I don't see any way that we'll get further than the first three ... the funding is just not there," Seifarth said.

According to county documents, the planning department estimates that $180,000 in local funds will be available to purchase the development rights of the farms.

The county contributes 40 percent to the program, and the state contributes a 60 percent match, Iseminger said.

Based on local contributions this year, the state's match will be about $270,000, Iseminger said. That brings the total amount of funding available this year to about $450,000, he said.

In past years, more than $1 million has been available for the program, Iseminger said.

Seifarth said 10 properties will be appraised in case any of the landowners accepted into the program change their minds.

The county pays about $1,000 per property appraisal, he said.

In addition, one farm is eligible for Greenprint funding this year, Seifarth said. The Greenprint program was launched by the state in 2001 to protect environmentally sensitive areas.

The Washington County Agricultural Advisory Board ranks the farmland based on the agricultural characteristics of the land. The properties with the highest rankings have the first shots at being accepted into the program, Seifarth said.

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