Jefferson County Farmland Protection Board celebrates 10 years of saving land from developers

September 03, 2012|By RICHARD F. BELISLE |
  • The Bower on Bowers Road near Leetown, W.Va., was built in 1806 by Adam Stephen Dandridge, grandson of Gen. Adam Stephen, founder of Martinsburg, W.Va.
Photo by Richard Belisle

CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. — Since it was established in 2002, the Jefferson County Farmland Protection Board has managed to keep developers off nearly 3,500 acres of area farmland.

On Saturday, the board will note that achievement with a 10th-anniversary celebration at The Bower, one of the 36 Jefferson County farms that has land in the program.

The agency issued its first conservation easement — 120 acres on a farm near Shepherdstown, W.Va. — in October 2004, said Elizabeth Wheeler, administrator of the program and its only paid employee.

A state law has allowed the board to levy more than $9.2 million in transfer taxes on real estate sales since 2002. The money is matched with funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the National Park Service’s National Battlefield Protection Program, the Nature Conservancy and the Potomac Conservancy, Wheeler said.

Farmland considered for inclusion in the program is appraised using federal standards to determine its development value versus its agricultural value. The board pays the landowner the difference between the two.

Wheeler said about 30 percent of the land that has been put into conservation easements has been wholly or partially donated by owners.

“That speaks to the (personal) values of the owners who do this,” she said.

The board closed on 11 easements in 2011, Wheeler said. There are secured commitments and funding for 147 acres remaining this year, with another 996 acres in the application process for the 2012-13 funding cycle.

It takes a minimum of 40 acres of workable farmland to be considered for the program. An owner can donate less, provided it’s workable farmland, Wheeler said.

“It has to be good farmland,” Wheeler said. “We don’t take rocks. You can’t farm on rocks.”

The program enables landowners to permanently protect the agricultural, natural, scenic and historic values of their property from development. Owners retain full use of the land. Easements are perpetual and are transferred when the property is sold.
Only 17 of West Virginia’s 55 counties have farmland protection boards, Wheeler said. Counties with the most land in easements are Morgan, Berkeley and Jefferson counties in the Eastern Panhandle, plus Hampshire, Greenbrier and Pocahontas counties.

Saturday’s celebration runs from 1 to 5 p.m. Many of the 36 participating landowners are expected to attend.

A highlight of the day will be tours of The Bower on Bowers Road near Leetown, W.Va.

The Bower, according to “Uncommon Vernacular,” a history of early Jefferson County houses by John C. Allen Jr., is, at 60 feet by 40 feet, the largest early center hall house in the county. Looming over Bowers Road, the mansion boasts 12-foot-high ceilings.

It was built in 1806 by Adam Stephen Dandridge, grandson of Gen. Adam Stephen, founder of Martinsburg, W.Va.

According to local histry, at Dandridge’s invitation, Confederate Gen. J.E.B. Stuart set up his headquarters in The Bower in September and October 1862.

Seven members make up the agency’s board of directors.

County Commissioner Frances Morgan represents the commissioners as a nonvoting member. The six voting members include John Reisenweber, executive director of the Jefferson County Development Authority, plus one representative each from the Jefferson County Farm Bureau and Soil Conservation District, one local farmer and two members of the public at large.

Tickets for the anniversary celebration cost $50 and can be purchased from the Jefferson County Farmland Protection Board office by calling 304-724-1414.

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