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County must invest now in farmland preservation

March 11, 2005

As part of a plan to modify Washington County's formula for collecting excise taxes, the county's General Assembly delegation agreed to a plan that would allow the County Commissioners to spend less on agricultural land preservation.

We understand why the commissioners made the request, but now is the time to spend as much as possible on this program.

The county government is currently required to commit $1.8 million from state, federal and local funds each year to agricultural preservation.

Commissioners James Kercheval and William Wivell asked the delegation to drop the requirement to $1 million.

Their reason? If state and federal funding sources dry up, they said, then the county would be forced to cut some local programs to make up the difference.

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The delegation went along, although state Sen. Don Munson expressed concern that without a strong commitment to farmland preservation, the county might be "paved over."

Kercheval said the commissioners haven't decided how much to spend on preservation, but he and Wivell said $1 million was a reasonable amount.

Here is what concerns us: In January, Eric Seifarth, the county's farmland preservation coordinator said that the cost of farmland easements had risen from $3,200 to $3,500 per acre, up from $2,300 just two years ago.

Seifarth said it's been determined that the county needs to preserve 50,000 acres to keep agriculture viable here, but that only 18,000 acres have been preserved so far.

Seifarth said it would take $100 million to meet the 50,000-acre goal. If the county spends just $1 million per year, it would take a century to meet the target, a century during which much land would be lost to development.

Sen. Munson told Wivell and Kercheval that farmland preservation is a "quality of life issue."

We agree, but it's also an economic issue. As county residents are now seeing, an influx of new residents means increased costs for schools, roads and other services.

It is not reasonable or possible to stop growth, but paying for preservation will be a whole lot cheaper than paying for the costs of development.

When the commissioners decide how much to spend on this program, we urge them to keep in mind that skimping on preservation now may lead to soaring costs in other areas later.

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