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Berkeley County farmland preservation grows

June 16, 2011|By MATTHEW UMSTEAD | matthew.umstead@herald-mail.com

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. — More than 3,000 acres of Berkeley County farmland now is protected from development through conservation easements, the executive director of the county farmland protection board said Thursday.

The addition of easements for 175 acres owned by David and Sharon Malatt in the Hedgesville area in December and 127 acres owned by Paul and Evelyn Ashton in Gerrardstown last month pushed the total acreage under easements held by the Berkeley County Farmland Protection Board to 3,195, according to Board Executive Director Robert “Bob” White.

Four more easements totaling about 230 acres are moving toward closing this summer, joining 32 now recorded, according to White’s report.

In his presentation to the Berkeley County Council, White said the decline in real estate transfer tax revenue, which is generated when property changes hands, is limiting the farmland board’s ability to add more easements and affecting the overall decisions being made.

“Right now, we’re averaging a little over $50,000 a month (in revenue) ... around $600,000 a year. One good easement can take that out,” White said.

Transfer tax revenue for the current fiscal year was projected to be about $990,000, but budget revisions, including one approved by the council on Thursday, have cut the projected estimate by more than $260,000, according to figures provided by County Administrator Deborah Hammond.

“The original projected revenue for the property transfer tax was the same as the prior year’s budget,” Hammond said after Thursday’s council meeting. “Although both the Planning Commission and Building Inspections (departments) have met and exceeded their projections for the year, this revenue indicator has continued to lag due to the effects of the recession.”

While interest in the program remains strong, White told council members that the easement process also has been complicated by a new federal regulation that requires all easement appraisals to be reviewed by a second appraiser before being accepted for closing.

White said the relocation of the board’s office in November from the historic Boydville estate to the third floor of the Dunn building, the county’s administrative office complex, has proved to be valuable because interest in the farmland protection program has increased, White said.

“I have people coming to the office regularly,” White said. “I have lots and lots of phone calls, lots of messages when I’m not there.”

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