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Franklin Co. realty tax hike would help farmland preservation

March 16, 2006|by DON AINES

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa.

Raising the realty transfer tax could raise enough money to preserve 50,000 acres of farmland in Franklin County, which would have the added benefit of helping control growth, County Commissioner G. Warren Elliott told the county's Council of Governments on Wednesday.

Elliott told the representatives from municipal governments and schools districts that farmland preservation can reduce the acres available for sprawl development. It also can ease the burden on municipalities and school districts to provide water and sewer utilities, roads and schools for new residential developments.

Since the program began in the early 1990s, development rights on 57 farms comprising 7,968 acres have been jointly purchased by the county and state at a cost of $10.9 million, according to county figures. This year, the county has $6.2 million in county and state funds available and has set a goal of bringing the number of preserved acres to more than 10,000, he said.

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Keeping agriculture viable in the county will require the eventual preservation of about 50,000 acres, Elliott said recently. That industry includes not just the farms themselves, but the feed, seed, farm equipment and other businesses that rely on agriculture, he said.

What farmers produce each year in dairy, meat, grain, fruit and other products is worth about $250 million, County planning Director Phil Tarquino said. He did not have figures on how much the agriculture-related businesses add to the local economy.

Legislation being introduced by state Rep. Stephen Maitland, R-Adams/Franklin, would give local officials in designated "growth counties" special powers to address growth issues.

Among those powers is imposing an additional 1 percent to the 2 percent realty transfer tax levied when a property is sold. Maitland's bill would allow half of the increase to be used by counties for farmland and open space preservation. The other half would go to school districts.

Currently, the state gets 1 percent of the transfer tax, with the other 1 percent split between the school district and municipality in which the property is situated.

That tax now generates about $300,000 a year for the Tuscarora School District, Business Manager Richard Kerr said. In the Chambersburg Area School District, Business Manager Rick Vensel said the tax is expected to bring in nearly $2 million this year.

Washington Township Manager Mike Christopher said the additional tax would allow the county to reach its 50,000-acre goal. It also targets the developers and people coming to the county that are putting a strain on local governments and schools to provide services.

"If you want to move to Franklin County, pay," Christopher said. The only impact fees now available to municipalities, he said, are for transportation improvements and recreation, Tarquino said.

Commissioner Bob Thomas said preserving a farm means not having to extend sewer and water systems to new areas or improving rural roads to handle suburban traffic. Elliott said it also encourages redevelopment in boroughs and older communities.

"It's all about achieving balance ... I'm not anti-growth and this is not an anti-growth program," he said of farmland preservation. The county's economy would stagnate without growth, he said.

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