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Commissioners balk at price of farm conservation

February 16, 2007|by MATTHEW UMSTEAD

MARTINSBURG, W.VA. - A $1.8 million price tag on a proposed conservation easement for 158 acres of southern Berkeley County farmland was unsettling to county commissioners on Thursday who ultimately delayed approving the protective agreement and four others submitted.

"My concern is getting the biggest bang for the buck," said Commissioner William L. "Bill" Stubblefield after he and Commissioners Steven C. Teufel and Ronald K. Collins adjourned their weekly meeting, which lasted more than six hours.

As proposed, the easement for acreage off Arden Nollville Road about two miles from Inwood, W.Va., along with another for 113.5 acres at a cost of $397,250 also in southern Berkeley County, would drain the amount of money projected to be available for farmland protection by end of the fiscal year, which ends June 30, executive director Lavonne Paden said.

Concerned about the available money for other easement applications apparently comprising 4,000 acres, the Commission asked legal counsel Norwood Bentley to clarify what authority they have regarding approval of an easement and whether they should ask the Arden Nollville Road landowner to reduce the asking price. They also asked Bentley to determine whether a cap could be put in place on the amount of compensation that could be offered to a land owner. The board has recommended the Commission adopt a cap that's less than $10,000 per acre.

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"My first inclination is we don't have the authority to put a cap on," Bentley said.

Former Farmland Protection Board president Jim Moore told commissioners that he doubted they had the legal authority to deny the applications based on price. Applications are selected through a ranking system based on criteria that are "about as neutral as you can get," Moore said.

"They don't pick and choose who gets money," Moore said.

The other three proposed easements Paden presented on Thursday are donations, meaning the owners did not ask to be compensated for development rights on a combined 195 acres, she said.

Funds for easements are typically generated by a tax applied to real estate transfers in Berkeley County and federal funding, which Paden said has been reduced and now is distributed among 16 county programs across West Virginia.

"The Eastern Panhandle used to be the only game in town," Paden said of the growing farmland protection program after the meeting.

If all of the easements are approved, the amount of acreage protected from development in Berkeley County will be about 2,268 acres, Paden said.

Echoing Stubblefield's concerns, Teufel also noted the stark difference - about 10,000 - in per-acre cost between the applicants asking for compensation.

Paden responded that the difference only reflected the landowner's decision to not seek more money and later noted the property owner who asked for less was "preservation-minded."

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