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Commission backs farmland changes

February 24, 2006|by ROBERT SNYDER

martinsburg@herald-mail.com

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - A bill that would limit the ability of county farmland protection boards to acquire properties received the endorsement of the Berkeley County Commission on Thursday.

The commission voted 3-0 to support a bill, which originated the same day in the Senate Judiciary Committee, that would amend the Voluntary Farmland Protection Act and require farmland protection boards to obtain the approval of county commissions before buying property. Presently the law, which requires the board to submit proposed easement purchases to county commissions, is silent on the subject of land acquisitions.

County commissioner Steve Teufel described the bill as an effort to close loopholes made evident since the purchase of Boydville by the Berkeley County farmland protection board.

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"I think a lot of this stems with what is going on with Boydville," Teufel said.

The bill was originated in the Senate Judiciary Committee by Sen. Clark Barnes, R-Morgan, who said the change helps give county commissions greater oversight.

"It's an attempt to fix an otherwise open-ended situation where we have another board out there that has no oversight or accountability," Barnes said.

Barnes said in a phone interview he submitted the bill at the request of a member of the Berkeley County Commission, whom he declined to name.

"We agreed there was an error in the way the bill was written in the first place and should be corrected," Barnes said.

A first reading of the bill is expected by the full Senate today.

The bill would also give county commissions the ability to weigh in on the value of properties proposed for inclusion in the program, ahead of the value being determined in arbitration.

Another provision in the bill would do even more to limit the work of the farmland protection boards, said Berkeley County Farmland Protection Board Executive Director Lavonne Paden.

Paden said a provision that would redefine agricultural land as properties that had been farmed within the last 10 years would restrict some properties from being considered for inclusion in the program.

"The objective of the farmland protection act was to target certain properties, not to make sure there was a farmer on there farming it," said Paden, adding that the restriction exempts properties that may have lain dormant, but may still be suitable land for inclusion in the program.

"What happens if a widow is sitting on 300 acres of farmland and the husband has been dead for 15 years and she wants to donate it?" Paden asked. "When they start defining farmland in terms of years I don't think they have a good handle on the dynamic out there."

Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley, who was one of the authors of the original farmland act, called the proposal a limitation on the autonomy of county farmland boards.

Unger, who decried the introduction of the bill by the Judiciary Committee as a move to prevent him from weighing in on it, called the bill an attack on him as a result of his effort to preserve Martinsburg's historic Boydville property, which Berkeley County's farmland protection board purchased in December for $2.25 million.

The county's Boydville purchase has been the subject of contention among local officials, who have both questioned the legality of the purchase, objected to insuring the property, and have blocked efforts to allow the consumption of alcohol on the site, citing a policy that bars alcohol on county property.

Unger, who said he had sought a leave of absence to attend his grandfather's funeral, and was in Kingwood, W.Va., when the legislation was introduced, said the bill should have first been introduced in the full Senate and then referred to a committee.

"They wanted to be sneaky about it," he said.

Barnes denied the charge.

In other matters, during an evening farmland protection board meeting Thursday, board members acknowledged a request by the county commission to meet March 2 to discuss ongoing issues regarding Boydville and the sale of alcohol on the property during the upcoming Arts Centre-sponsored Wine and Jazz Festival, which has been held at Boydville for 10 years.

County Commissioner Steve Teufel told board members the commission is opposed to alcohol on any public property because of concerns over liability, but in an interview afterward indicated the farmland board could insure the property itself as a way around the restriction.

"Then they can do what they want. If you want to take all the liability and all the headaches that go with it, that's fine," he said.

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