11/3/2012 7:00 AM
By Charlene M. Shupp Espenshade Special Sections Editor
LANCASTER, Pa. — Pennsylvania has established itself as a leader in farmland preservation. More farms and acres have been preserved here than in any other state in the nation.
However, for counties actively engaged in the state’s preservation program, it might be time for a new way to preserve that land.
Lancaster County Commissioner Scott Martin held an open forum last week asking for ideas on how to continue Lancaster County’s preservation efforts.
He said it was not a meeting on whether Lancaster County should preserve farmland, but a search for ideas on developing better funding sources.
“This is about sustainability and mostly moving forward,” he said, describing the meeting as a “think tank” to bring supporters of the program together to generate new ideas.
That search focuses on one problem — the current model has left Lancaster County with a large debt to repay. About 30 percent of its overall debt is tied to farmland preservation, Martin said.
More than 100 farmers, other citizens, township leaders, county planning commission members and preservation representatives gathered at the Lancaster Farm and Home Center on Oct. 25 to tackle the preservation funding question.
“Where do we go from here? What is our goal?” Martin asked several times through the meeting.
Although preservation efforts are valuable and needed, Martin said, he has been getting questions about when enough land will have been preserved.
Plus, Martin said he does not believe the county can continue to borrow money to sustain the program.
Counties can receive up to 50 percent funding from the state farmland preservation program, but the county is still left to pay the balance of the bill. It can be matched with federal funding, but that still does not meet the demand for preservation in Lancaster County.
To make up the difference, Lancaster County has secured several bonds to funnel county funding into the program.
The method has been a double-edged sword. While the debt has added to the financial burden of the county, it has also allowed the county to preserve more farmland before it becomes even more expensive.
As a result, Lancaster County is quickly approaching the 100,000-acre threshold.
Matt Knepper, director of the county farmland preservation program, said that when he gets together with the other program administrators in the state and region, they are all looking for new ways to support their local programs and stretch their program dollars.
Farmers, who will often take less than the value of the preservation easement, or development rights, can use the difference between cash received and value against their tax bill, which has helped to preserve even more farms in Lancaster County.
Dan Zimmerman, Warwick Township manager, said he looks to transfers of development rights, or TDRs, to help get his farmers to the top of the county’s preservation list.
In each county, owners who want to preserve their farmland are ranked based on a variety of factors, including soil quality, location near other preserved farms or farms looking to preserve, discounts on the easement price, and funding available from the local municipality.
Zimmerman said his farmers were pleading for help because they were worried their farms would not get preserved before they had to be passed on to the next generation, and his township developed the TDR program to help their cause.
But Zimmerman called it “one tool,” not the entire solution to the preservation question.
Developers of commercial property purchase TDRs in exchange for developing in the township, which provides more money for farmland preservation.
The program has been successful so far, Zimmerman said. The catch is in keeping the program simple enough for developers to participate and the township to provide customer service.
The township also has to make sure there is enough demand from developers willing to purchase the TDRs to support the farms that need the assistance for preservation.
Knepper said the county works to make its dollars stretch in other ways. Besides state and federal funds, as well as TDRs, it also looks to private funding, mainly through Lancaster Farmland Trust. The county provides a challenge grant of $700,000 for the trust to match.
Martin talked about the legacy fees the county will receive from the Marcellus Shale industry. The county is to receive $400,000 this year, and a portion of the money could be used for farmland preservation.
However, Martin said this would be only a drop in the bucket when the county’s usual annual commitment to farmland preservation is $2 million.
Knepper, Martin and others have looked at other ideas around the country, and most are tied to some sort of tax or fee.
“By and large, they have (preserved) through bonds,” Knepper said. “If not a bond, it is supplemented by a dedicated source of revenue.”
Karen Martynick, executive director of Lancaster Farmland Trust, said she believes there should be a strategic discussion after the county hits the 100,000-acre mark.
In its early days, the program focused on preserving “any farm that it could,” she said, which has shifted to getting farmland preserved in continuous blocks. She said it might be time to re-double efforts to fill in the holes in those acreage areas.
The audience did not provide a clear-cut answer, but most of those attending were firm in their desire to see the program continue.
Ideas included getting recognition for the water quality values of preserved farmland as the county works to meet its requirements as part of the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
For funding, it was suggested that the county’s match to the Lancaster Farmland Trust should be counted as part of the state funding calculations, that the state should be pushed to allow a portion of sales taxes or hotel room taxes to go to farmland preservation, and that other municipalities should be encouraged to develop TDR programs or become part of a countywide TDR program.
Gene Garber, a farmer and chairman of the county Agricultural Preserve Board, said a “tool box of funding ideas” is needed to help the county create a sustainable funding program that would capture both residential and tourist dollars.
No matter what, Knepper said people should view the current situation as the “new normal,” and accept that new ideas and innovations are needed in a time of tighter government budgets.