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Farm program reaches milestone

October 26, 2003|by RICHARD F. BELISLE

waynesboro@herald-mail.com

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. - Franklin County passed a milestone this month when nearly 180 acres of prime farmland were set aside, bringing the number of acres of protected agricultural land to more than 7,000.

Once set aside, the land cannot sold for development.

Earlier this month, the Pennsylvania Agricultural Land Preservation Bill authorized the purchase of development rights to about 80 acres of land owned by Mark Hickman of 10333 Fort Stouffer Road, Greencastle, Pa., and 99 acres owned by Robert Helman Jr. of 4796 Helman Road, Chambersburg.

Phil Tarquino, director of planning for Franklin County, said 49 county farms totaling 7,022 acres have been set aside since the statewide preservation program began in 1990.

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So far, Tarquino said, more than $10 million has been spent setting aside Franklin County farmland at an average of $1,440 an acre. That compares to a state average of $2,101 per acre, he said.

The money comes from state and county sources, although some federal funds are involved, he said. The state pays about 90 percent and the county about 10 percent.

Pennsylvania is a leader in the program, with 2,066 farms and nearly 265,000 acres preserved. Tarquino said the state has spent more than $555 million on the program since it began.

The county purchased its first easements, 156 acres from two crop farms in Antrim and Quincy townships, in 1992.

The program is voluntary. Farmers have to apply for it.

Most of those who sell their development rights say they do so to protect the future of agriculture. Many who apply are people whose families have farmed the land for generations and want to ensure it will be there for generations to come.

An appraiser determines the land's market value and farm potential, and the program pays 85 percent of the difference. If the landowner agrees to the price and the state approves, the owner is issued a check.

Hickman said he preserved 80 of his 210 acres "because people like you like to eat dinner. I want my grandkids to eat, too."

He said he sees the development pressure that's coming into the area.

"Housing developments shouldn't be allowed in agricultural areas," he said.

Hickman said a farmer who can get $1 million for his land from a developer can sell the land for half that much to another farmer and make up the difference with money from the preservation program. He said it would be more beneficial to him if he could get the money in the form of long-term tax breaks over many years rather than in one lump sum, which is how the money is paid.

G. Warren Elliott, president of the Franklin County Commissioners, has been serving on the 15-member Pennsylvania Farmland Preservation Board for eight years. A proponent of the program since it was introduced, Elliott said it was criticized early on, but as more developers began to eye county farmland the criticism changed to support.

"Its value is not only in preserving farmers and agriculture; it benefits everyone," Elliott said. "It protects beautiful vistas, open space, the quality of life and our ability to feed ourselves."

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