YORK COUNTY, Pa. — One of Pennsylvania’s biggest ag counties has a plan to reduce its stormwater problems, but some farmers fear they’ll get soaked.
York County’s proposed stormwater authority would reduce farmers’ long waits to get conservation plans, improve stormwater infrastructure, and mitigate flooding problems.
The county planning commission says the agency — which would likely be the first county authority of its kind in the state — is needed to stave off punitive regulations related to the cleanup of the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
But some farmers see the program as a worrisome increase in government’s size and a new cost for their businesses.
“It’s going to be a hardship on farmers,” said Gerry Ambrosius, a corn and soybean producer from Manheim Township.
What an Authority Means
Perhaps the biggest question is why the county needs to create a new $15 million agency to reduce runoff from fields, lawns and pavement.
That seems like a job for the conservation district, said Jonathan Hash, a farmer and Fawn Township supervisor.
The county planning commission looked at the possibility of raising taxes to hire more staff at existing agencies.
But that approach wouldn’t have gotten any money from tax-exempt buildings like churches and fire halls.
“It rains on everything. We all are part of the water runoff, so we really wanted everybody to be part of the solution,” said Andrew Birmingham, an engineer from the firm JMT who is involved in the project.
An authority, however, can collect a fee — not a tax — on all parcels in the county, including the tax-exempt ones.
A dedicated authority might also make more progress on stormwater issues than existing agencies.
Unlike most townships, it would have the manpower and matching money to chase grant funding, said Lindsay Gerner, a senior planner at the planning commission.
The distinction between a fee and a tax doesn’t impress Aaron Manifold, chairman of the Hopewell Township supervisors.
“It’s still coming out of your pocket, and it’s going to a government agency. I don’t care what word you use of it,” he said.
And the authority’s $2 million in annual administrative costs seems like a lot when the tax-exempt parcels are only expected to generate $200,000 in fees, Manifold said.
Farmers would generate much more money than tax-exempt buildings for the stormwater authority, but it’s not clear that they’ll get as much in services as they pay in.
Over time, the planning commission says, farmers will pay 15 percent of the authority’s fees but get 20 percent of the benefits.
Three of the authority’s 14 staff would be dedicated to the conservation district to work through the backlog of farmers who want help writing conservation plans, Birmingham said.
But at least initially, the planning commission expects farmers would pay in $2.3 million a year while getting only $2 million in services.
That’s a result of the fee structure for farms, Gerner said.
Each agricultural parcel would be charged a flat fee of $48.90 plus $9 per tillable acre.
A farm with 100 tillable acres would pay $948.90 each year.
The per-acre fee would be waived if the farm has a conservation plan or is on a waiting list to get one. An eligible farm would pay just the $48.90 base fee — the same rate as a homeowner.
As more and more farms get conservation plans, the authority would collect less money from farmers, and that’s OK, Gerner said.
Once the authority has implemented a critical mass of new farm conservation projects, it would be able to spend more of its time on the less expensive work of maintaining them.
Manifold doubts the authority’s budget would really decline.
“There’s nothing in government that’s designed to get smaller,” he said.
And because many farms comprise multiple parcels, farmers would end up paying the base fee on each of them.
The planning commission wants farmer input on possible alternatives, such as charging a fee per conservation plan instead of per parcel, Gerner said.
At a Nov. 8 public meeting, Fawn Grove resident Kevin Frazier said he’d prefer to pay more as a homeowner if that meant cash-strapped farmers could get a lower rate.
“The farmer’s already an endangered species,” he said.
Submitting conservation plan information won’t just help farmers avoid the tillable-acre fee.
It will also allow the authority to tally how many conservation plans are in place across York County.
“There’s no place that keeps a record of those plans, and for whatever reason, they are not for public knowledge,” Gerner said.
The 2002 Farm Bill designated conservation plans as nonpublic to preserve farmers’ privacy and their willingness to provide information in the future.
The conservation plans that York County documents could be counted toward state and county pollution reduction goals.
The strategy mirrors Pennsylvania’s 2016 effort to count conservation projects that farmers had done on their own without government aid.
That survey turned up conservation plans covering more than 200,000 acres.
David Warner is rankled that playing catch-up is even necessary.
“Farmers in York County and the state of Pennsylvania have spent millions of dollars doing the right thing, and now they’re saying, ‘Well, we really don’t have a record of it,’” said Warner, a farmer and Chanceford Township supervisor.
Farmers have cut water pollution in recent decades by fencing cattle out of streams, adopting no-till, planting cover crops, and planting forested buffers along streams.
At this point, Rodney Shearer, a farmer and North Codorus Township supervisor, is skeptical that farmers can do more.
“Anybody ... that runs a family farm knows that we don’t want water running off, and we sure ... don’t want nutrients running off our property, and we sure don’t want our ground leaving,” Shearer said.
Still, agriculture remains the largest source of York County’s nutrient pollution, accounting for 62 percent of its nitrogen and 36 percent of its phosphorus runoff, according to Matt Johnston, senior policy analyst at the Chesapeake Bay Program.
York County planners had already been studying the feasibility of a stormwater authority for a few years when, in 2017, Pennsylvania told its counties in the bay watershed to come up with their own plans for reducing water pollution.
The county documents will support the state’s plan, which is due to the Environmental Protection Agency in April.
The stormwater authority is a key part of York County’s submission.
But Warner worries that the authority’s dedicated funding source and degree of independence from the county commissioners could lead to a lack of accountability.
The authority’s proposed structure is designed to address those concerns, said Ben Ried, an attorney involved in the project.
The county commissioners would appoint the authority’s 11 board members, but they would receive recommendations from committees representing the county’s nine watersheds.
“The commissioners are going to honor those nominations,” Ried said.
Warner expects the authority would also have the power of eminent domain, meaning it could take a piece of a farm if it were deemed necessary for stormwater management.
“That’s the scary part,” he said.
Landowners have nothing to worry about, Gerner said. If they don’t want to participate in a project on their land, “they’re not going to be forced to do it.”
On top of the improvements to local water quality, there’s a good reason that farmers might want to cooperate with the authority.
Pennsylvania is far short of its pollution reduction goals, and if the state doesn’t improve enough, the EPA could heap more regulations and costs on farms and municipalities.
Those could include lowering the number of animal units needed to qualify as a concentrated animal feeding operation, and requiring more jurisdictions to get stormwater permits, Gerner said.
But Hash — the Fawn Township farmer and supervisor — said municipalities have received empty threats before, and he isn’t too worried about expanded federal oversight while Donald Trump is president.
“It’s the same old trick of ‘Well, we know, and you need to do this now, because if you don’t do what we want now, it’ll be worse for you later,’” Hash said. “Well, I don’t buy it.”
The York County commissioners are expected to vote on creating the stormwater authority next year.
Susan Byrnes, the president commissioner, said that the county does need to address its stormwater and flooding problems, but that no decision on the authority has been made.
Some farmers who would be footing part of the authority’s bill already have their minds made up.
“The rural communities and the farm community, we’re drawing a line in the sand,” Warner said. “We’ve had enough.”