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Board seeks input on proposed farmland changes

April 09, 2007|by MATTHEW UMSTEAD

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - A public hearing will be held Wednesday for Berkeley County residents and property owners to offer input on a number of proposed changes to the county's voluntary farmland protection program, including a $6,500-per-acre cap for conservation easements.

The hearing is slated to begin at 6 p.m. in Berkeley County Commission chambers in the Dunn building at 400 W. Stephen St.

Changes implemented could affect individuals who already have applied and might have to revise their offers, Berkeley County Farmland Protection Executive Director Lavonne Paden said.

The cap probably is the "most controversial" proposed change and if adopted could be the first established among all farmland protection programs across the state, Paden said.

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"It lets the board maybe spread out the (tax revenue from real estate transfers) a little more," Paden said.

"It wouldn't be fixed (at $6,500) forever, they could change it."

She noted past Farmland Board members were opposed to caps and some residents who attended the Board's March 27 meeting aired concerns about the limit.

"It's a tough decision," Paden said.

In addition to the cap proposal, another amendment allows for landowners who ask for $2,000 less than the proposed cap per acre to benefit through the program's point system and as a result "we may take their offer sooner than later," Paden said.

Though land may be offered for less than fair market value, Paden said the owner still is eligible for a federal tax deduction.

"It's not a complete give-away," Paden said.

Another ranking system change would give additional points to farmland owners based on gross revenues generated from farm production, which would be verified through tax filings, Paden said.

The board also is proposing to allot additional points for applicants who come from areas of Berkeley County where no easements have been placed, a change that Paden said likely would have to be revisited in the future. None of the point system changes would have any bearing on the ranking system used by U.S. Department of Agriculture agencies to award federal moneys, Paden said.

"I've got the county divided into eight blocks," Paden said of a grid map she will present at the public hearing.

Paden said one such area was in the northwestern area of the county, encompassing the communities of Little Georgetown, Allensville and Spring Mills.

Several of the 21 easements either in place or pending encompass land in the Back Creek Valley area, Paden said.

In response to a West Virginia Ethics Commission opinion, Paden said the board is proposing that amendment also be adopted to prohibit the acceptance of purchase offers from sitting board members or County Commissioners, Board staff or contractors, or their immediate families for a period of one year after a member vacates their seat or staff leaves their position.

The Berkeley County Commission on Thursday accepted the resignation of Farmland Protection Board member Bill Butler, who already has applied for an easement on property he owns in southern Berkeley County, Paden said.

Butler's application is "preserved" and his resignation was very amicable, Paden said.

After the hearing this week, the Farmland Protection Board will consider the public's feedback at their next regular meeting at 7 p.m. on April 26 before submitting the recommendations to the County Commission for approval, Paden said.

"The great beauty of this program is ... we don't have to go back to (the state capital of) Charleston to make changes to what fits the county," Paden said.




Public hearing



What: The Berkeley County Farmland Protection Board is seeking the public's input on proposed changes to the county's voluntary farmland protection program.

When: Wednesday at 6 p.m.

Where: Berkeley County Commission chambers in the Dunn building at 400 W. Stephen St.. Martinsburg, W.Va.

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