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Eastern Panhandle's advocate for farmland protection moving to state level

May 12, 2008|By MATTHEW UMSTEAD

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - Lavonne Paden, a leading advocate of protecting farmland in the Eastern Panhandle, has tendered her resignation as the Berkeley County Farmland Protection Board's executive director for a similar state-level job.

"I'm really looking forward to putting West Virginia on the map as far as farmland protection," Paden said last week of her new job as director of the state Agricultural Land Protection Authority. Paden said she made her resignation effective Sept. 30, with the intention of helping her replacement get familiar with the job.

"I'll miss dealing with the landowners here," Paden said.

"She's going to be a tough person to replace," farmland board chairman Clint Hogbin said. Hogbin also will be stepping down this fall after serving two consecutive four-year terms in accordance with state-mandated term limits.

Created by lawmakers in 2002, the state authority was empowered to help property owners obtain conservation easements in counties that do not have a local voluntary farmland protection program, Paden said. County farmland boards were authorized in 2000, but not given a funding source - real estate transfer taxes - until 2002.

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Until the passage of Senate Bill 622 this year, the state authority lacked adequate funding and currently only holds one conservation easement in Preston County because the parcel crossed county lines into Monongalia County, Paden said.

Executive director of the board since March 2004, Paden also worked part time with the state authority. Berkeley County's board was the first to be created in West Virginia in 2000, and more than 15 have been started since.

Adopted in March 2008, Senate Bill 622 increased certain recording fees charged by the state's 55 county clerks and requires equal portions of that money to be divided between the Outdoor Heritage Conservation Fund also created by the legislation and the state Agricultural Land Protection Authority.

The Conservation Fund was created to support voluntary placement of easements on forested and other "outdoor heritage" recreational areas that are outside the scope of the farmland protection program, according to the new state code.

The funding source for both state-level land-conservation programs will come from the county clerks' charge for recording a deed of conveyance (with or without a plat), which was increased from $10 to $15 by the legislation. Yet, $11 of the higher recording fee still is to be retained for operation of the county clerk's office, according to the bill. The clerks' charge for recording certain documents not named in the state code will be doubled, from $5 to $10, and that additional money also will benefit the state-level initiatives.

Because Berkeley County was the first farmland board to be established in West Virginia, Paden said the program was able to obtain a significant amount of matching federal dollars for easements.

Hogbin reported earlier this year that $6.1 million in county real estate transfer taxes and about $2.1 million in federal funding had been received for the county's farmland protection program since it began. More than 2,100 acres in Berkeley County have been protected from development with conservation easements, Hogbin said.

Among all of the easements completed, only one property - the Boydville estate in Martinsburg - has stirred controversy.

"I still think it was the right thing to do," Paden said of the Farmland Protection Board's decision to purchase the 13-acre property for $2.25 million.

The circa-1812 mansion and outbuildings on the leafy South Queen Street property were on the verge of being folded into a town house development by a Virginia developer in 2005 when the farmland board, with financial backing from Martinsburg City Council, purchased it.

The Farmland Board has since been unsuccessful in efforts to sell the property with a conservation easement on it, no thanks to a downturn in the real estate market.

Paden said she still believes the "interests" of the historical property should be merged with the adjoining, albeit blighted shopping plaza the Berkeley County Commission purchased along South Raleigh Street last summer by issuing $3.5 million in revenue bonds.

"That's my vision and I have not moved from that vision," Paden said.

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