From Moorefield Examiner, January 26, 2005

Reprinted with permission


Farmland Protection Board Submits First Applications

By Dick Hughes

Special to Moorefield Examiner


The Hardy County Farmland Protection Board has submitted its first applications in a federal and county program to protect prime agricultural land in perpetuity.  After reviewing the two applications, the board submitted them to the Natural Resources Conservation Service of the US Department of Agriculture for a 50-percent matching grant to buy conservation easements that would ensure the parcels remain as farmland forever.

One of the applications is for 155 acres in the Moorefield area, and the other is for 150 acres in the Wardensville area.  Under the Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program, landowners “sell” a conservation easement on prime agriculture land for the difference between the highest value of the land for farming and the highest value for development for commercial or residential purposes.  The easement stipulates that the property can never be used for anything but agriculture. The land can be sold over and over again, but the easement stays attached and cannot be undone.

Dennis Funk of Bean Settlement, president of the Hardy County Farmland Protection Board, said the board is eager to get its first easement approved and funded to prove to farmers that the process is fair and to remove fears of losing control of their land.  The two applications were the only ones received by the board in the first year of its program.  “Once people see that you still own the land and can do what you want with it, except subdivide it, we’ll be getting a lot more applications,” Funk said. “Everybody is scared to be first.”

The county program took the initial steps to set up a program two years ago when the Hardy County Commission appointed a seven-member board to establish and manage it. A critical step was taken in September 2003 when the commissioners imposed a transfer tax of $2.20 per $1,000 on all property transactions effective Nov. 1, 2003. The tax funds the county’s pool of money for its share of the cost of buying conservation easements.
Deborah Bishop, secretary/treasurer of the local board, said that in the first 12 months of the tax, $110,000 was collected, 10 percent more than anticipated on an annual basis.

To win a 50 percent matching grant for the Hardy County easements, the applicants compete against those from other counties and private land trusts with farmland protection programs.   Pat Bowen, the USDA’s assistant state conservationist for field operations and program director for the farmland protection program, said West Virginia was allocated $1.645 million by the USDA for buying conservation easements in 2005. The state’s share is miniscule relative to the total USDA budget of $84 million for the program.

Bowen said the applications for federal money to buy the easements would be reviewed and ranked against the government’s standards for eligibility in the program. “I’ll start at the top and work down through the list until I run out of money,” he said.  To make a point about the competitiveness in allocating scarce federal dollars, Bowen noted that Berkeley County alone has asked for as much as $10 million in federal matching money for its farmland protection program.

The Hardy board is pinning its hopes for a positive outcome on the fact that the federal review process sometimes tilts in favor of first-time applicants.  “Since we only had two, we’re hoping they might go with both to help us get the program going,” Funk said.

The goal of the program is to protect the county’s most tillable farmland from development by giving farmers an alternate source of income from their land beside sale to a developer. Using a point scale, the board evaluates: · the quality of the soil using USDA-NRCS soil classification and productivity standards; · the likelihood the land is “under considerable development pressure” and is in proximity to properties with easement restrictions that permit clustering of conservation zones; · the financial stability of the farm; · evidence that the landowner has a “history of operating under good management practices” of conservation and pollution control; · the size of the parcel being offered and the percent of the farm in active agriculture; and · the value of the easement offer relative to the fair market price of the parcel.

If one or both of the Hardy County applications pass federal muster for matching funds, the county board and the USDA will split the cost of the easements – the difference between the value of the land for farming and the value for developing.  In a hypothetical case in Hardy County, where the difference between the agricultural and development value roughly is $2,000 to $3,000 per acre, a farmer agreeing to a conservation easement on 150 acres would be paid $300,000 to $450,000 for the easement. The farmer could continue to farm the land and could sell it at any time; however, the 150 acres would be forever restricted to agricultural use.

If the USDA-NRCS accepts for funding one or both of the Hardy County applications, Funk said, the local Farmland Protection Board would hire a certified appraiser to fix the values of the land for agriculture and development to determine the worth easement.  If the USDA-NRCS does not accept the applications for federal matching funds, the county can fund the easement purchase on its own or seek a partnership with a nonprofit land conservancy such as the Cacapon and Lost Rivers Land Trust.  In fact, the first conservation easement in West Virginia took place in Hardy County when the Cacapon and Lost Rivers Trust and the USDA linked up to purchase a conservation easement on 256 acres of Capon Valley farm land near Wardensville in March 2003. No county money was involved in the deal.

West Virginia got a late start in participating in the farmland protection program. The WV Legislature did not adopt until 2000 enabling legislation to allow counties to establish boards and levy transfer taxes for funding easement purchases. Gov. Bob Wise delayed until the end of his term appointment of a state advisory board within the agriculture department to assist counties in setting up local programs. The board has yet to be fully confirmed by the senate.  Nonetheless, Bowen said, the program has been growing rapidly in the state. Nine counties have established fully operational farmland protection boards and enacted transfer taxes to fund easement purchases; six counties have established boards but have yet to impose transfer taxes; and five counties are in the beginning process of creating boards.  Hardy County was the fifth county to fully embrace and fund the program.

Since 2002, the USDA has helped purchase of 3,408 acres in conservation easements statewide. The average easement value is $2,316 per acre, and the average parcel size is 123 acres.  In another recent development cited by Bowen to illustrate growing support for the program, a West Virginia Association of Farmland Protection Boards was formed this month to promote the program and provide support, including workshops.

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