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Berkeley County grants itself final say over farmland protection decisions

May 05, 2006|by ROBERT SNYDER

MARTINSBURG, W.VA.

In a move designed to limit the autonomy of Berkeley County's farmland protection board, the County Commission voted Thursday to require that it approve all properties considered for conservation before the board acquires them.

The decision, which followed a similar policy vote March 23 by the Board of Directors of the Berkeley County Farmland Protection Board, amends the program to give the commissioners final say over all properties that are submitted for inclusion into the voluntary farmland protection program, either through donation, conservation easement or by outright purchase.

The vote served as a blanket remedy for a number of other issues that divided board members and commissioners, who had been seeking to amend the scope of the farmland program's activity and disqualify from consideration properties within city limits as well as properties that had not been farmed within 10 years.

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The commission's effort echoed a failed measure proposed in the state Legislature in February that sought to apply similar amendments to the state's Voluntary Farmland Protection Act.

Farmland protection Chairman Jim Moore, who acknowledged that outstanding differences were effectively resolved by giving the commission final say on acquisitions, told commissioners the county had received more than $1.6 million in funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture on about $5.5 million worth of development rights extinguishments. Moore defended the inclusion into the program of land not being presently farmed, adding that excluding properties that may have lain fallow for more than 10 years could jeopardize federal funding.

"If we had something within our program that would have been more restrictive than the federal government, we'd have lost $1.4 million," Moore told commissioners.

In an April 21 letter to the commission, Moore said all 22 applicants to the program were classified for tax purposes as working farms.

Even as commissioners voted to grant themselves more authority in reviewing applications, they appeared to back away from some earlier proposals. Commissioner Steve Teufel noted that his opposition to properties that had not been farmed for more than 10 years had more to do with parcels of land within city limits.

"Why would the city want to incorporate land for farming when they don't let you do any kind of farming whatsoever?" Teufel asked.

Commission legal counsel Norwood Bentley noted that disqualifying city parcels would affect properties from consideration that might later be annexed into municipal areas.

Commission President Howard Strauss said he supported the consideration of city properties for inclusion into the program.

"I want to make sure that all the citizens of the county who pay the same (transfer tax) fee get the same benefits from it," Strauss said.

Despite the failure of the bill, the Senate passed a joint resolution in February that calls for a review of the state's 15 farmland protection boards.

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