Progress made on farmland preservation in Pa., W.Va.

September 20, 2004|by DAVE McMILLION and DON AINES

TRI-STATE - About 788 acres of farmland have been saved from development in Jefferson and Berkeley counties since 2000 and those involved in the efforts estimate another 1,250 acres will be preserved within the upcoming year.

Interest in saving farmland in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia and in Franklin County, Pa., has increased as the area gives way to development.

After the West Virginia Legislature passed a bill that allows counties to form them, farmland protection boards were set up in Berkeley and Jefferson counties.


Farmland is protected through conservation easements that are established for the properties.

In most cases, property owners are paid money in exchange for agreeing not to build on the lands.

In Berkeley County, six conservation easements have been established since the Berkeley County Farmland Protection Board was formed, said Lavonne Paden, executive director of the board.

The easements represent a little more than 600 acres that have been preserved and $1.7 million was paid to landowners to protect the lands, Paden said.

In Berkeley and Jefferson counties, revenues from a property transfer tax are used to help save farmland.

A property transfer tax is generated when a piece of real estate is sold.

Officials estimate the transfer tax will generate about $600,000 a year in Jefferson County and about $1.2 million a year in Berkeley County.

Paden said she is happy with the county's farmland protection efforts, adding that 235 acres that have been saved are between Lost Road and Thatcher Road, where residential growth has been occurring.

Paden said the county's farmland protection efforts are not intended to stay ahead of development but to give property owners an option about how they want to handle their land.

"We've never been ahead of the development game," said Roger Dailey, referring to his group's efforts in Jefferson County.

In Jefferson County, two conservation easements have been set up, protecting a little more than 188 acres, said Dailey, chairman of the Jefferson County Farmland Protection Board.

One of the easements protected includes 94 acres along the Potomac River and adjacent to the Cress Creek Golf and Country Club. The second easement preserves 94.5 acres on a farm along Engle Moler Road, Dailey said.

All the easements in the two counties are for perpetuity, meaning development can never occur on the lands, Dailey said.

Farmland owners typically have to weigh a lot of issues when deciding whether to preserve their land because they are considering giving up their family's ability to generate extra revenue by selling it for development, Dailey said.

"That's a tough decision to make because you're talking about your children and your grandchildren and on down the line," Dailey said.

The state Legislature passed the Voluntary Farmland Protection Act in 2000 due to concerns about loss of farmland in the Eastern Panhandle. Since then the concerns have spread to many rural sections of the state and 12 counties have formed farmland protection boards or have had meetings to discuss forming them, Dailey said.

That means there will be more competition for money to pay for the conservation easements, Dailey said.

In the upcoming year, the Berkeley County Farmland Protection Board expects to finalize five protection easements, which will protect about 650 acres, Paden said. The Jefferson County Farmland Protection Board plans to get easements for four properties totaling almost 600 acres, Dailey said.

Since the program began in 1990, Franklin County has purchased the development easements on 52 farms totaling 7,205 acres of prime farmland, according to county Senior Planner Sherri Clayton. That pace should pick up over the next five years after the Board of County Commissioners last week approved a bond issue for $39 million to cover three major projects, including $5 million for farmland preservation.

"That $5 million should leverage us about $8.5 million from the state" in matching funds, Clayton said. With that money in hand, she said Franklin County could purchase the easements on another 6,500 acres.

This year, the county budgeted $400,000 for agricultural preservation and got $806,000 in matching funds from the state, according to Clayton. Over the life of the program, the county has spent approximately $2 million to keep prime farmland from being developed, she said.

During that time, the state contributed $10.7 million and the federal government paid another $426,000 for the program.

There is no shortage of farmers wanting to get into the program, Clayton said. Six farms comprising 1,300 farms have been accepted into the program and are awaiting final approval by the state Agricultural Farmland Preservation Board.

Another 102 farms with 13,000 acres of land have applied for the program, she said.

The purchase of easement rights averages about $2,000 an acre, according to Clayton, the difference between what an acre is worth as farmland and what it might be sold for if developed for commercial or residential development.

If all the farms that have applied are accepted into the program, it would be just a fraction of the existing farmland in the county, according to the Pennsylvania Agricultural Statistics Service. In 2001, there were 255,500 acres of farmland in the county, according to service figures.

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