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Commission clears way for arts festival

March 03, 2006|by ROBERT SNYDER

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - The Berkeley County Commission voted to allow a popular wine festival to be held at a historic Martinsburg property Thursday, and in doing, appeared to put the cork back on a bottle full of contention over the property's purchase by the county farmland protection board late last year.

In a meeting that capped a string of victories for the Berkeley County Farmland Protection Board this week, the commissioners voted unanimously to allow the board to lease the 13-acre Boydville property to the Arts Centre to hold its annual summer Wine and Jazz Festival there in May, providing the commission be included as an insured party on any insurance policy obtained for the event.

The vote represented a change of direction for commissioners Steve Teufel and Ron Collins who initially opposed allowing the sale or consumption of alcohol at Boydville. The property was purchased by the farmland protection board for $2.25 million in December, and until recently was listed among the county's insurable assets.

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"Once we give a green light to one group, the next group will have the same opportunity," Teufel said, in opposition to the alcohol allowance.

The purchase, which has grown increasingly controversial, provoked a separate effort by a bevy of Eastern Panhandle Republican lawmakers in the Senate and House of Delegates to rewrite the state's farmland protection act, requiring closer county commission oversight and changing the definition of qualifying farmland.

While both measures died, they could have had a detrimental effect on the viability of the farmland program statewide, said U.S. Department of Agriculture Assistant State Conservationist Patrick Bowen.

"... These changes may invalidate the work done by the counties to set up their locally sensitive farmland protection programs and may make them ineligible for federal funds under our program should these changes pass at this time," Bowen wrote in a Feb. 27 letter to Senate Finance Committee Chairman Walt Helmick.

Berkeley County's farmland program has received more than $1.7 million in federal funding for 17 properties totaling 1,764 acres slated to be entered into the program since 2004, farmland protection Chairman Jim Moore told commissioners Thursday.

Teufel, who indicated he wanted to see the board keep Boydville, said he would oppose future easements in municipalities as well as land purchases by the board. Teufel also said he believed the board should concentrate on buying development rights on working farms.

"My friends are the ones out there every day (farming) ... and I think the money ought to go to them," he said.

Farmland board members also managed to squash criticism Thursday over the legality of the Boydville purchase. After the commission's vote, Commission attorney Norwood Bentley said the purchase of the property was legal and done properly.

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