Friday, April 13, 2007

Northampton County wants to partner with communities to preserve open space

With land prices rising and more acreage on Northampton County's farm preservation list than it can afford to buy, there is talk of taking a fresh look at the current system that protects land from development.

Partnering with local communities is a central theme.

''We're going to sit here forever and never reduce this list if we don't make some bold moves,'' Councilman Ron Angle told a group of municipal officials. Angle, the county's representative on the Northampton County Farmland Preservation Board, said the county wouldn't have enough money for ''many years'' to purchase the development rights to the 27 farms now on this year's preservation waiting list.

''It could be a good many years until we get to some at the bottom,'' he said. The makeup of the list changes each year, depending on who applies.

Angle suggested communities that have increased their earned income tax a quarter percent and dedicated that increase to preserving open space might want to consider some options to yield a larger return. He said options include the possibility of municipalities using a county authority for local bond issues to purchase farmland development rights. The money from the increased earned income tax would be used to pay the bond debt.

He said another option would be for municipalities to target farms at the bottom of the preservation list, while the county money with its state funding match would still be used for parcels at the top of the rankings. ''I think if we were to work this thing from both ends, we would have more success,'' he said.

State Department of Agriculture statistics show Northampton County has so far preserved nearly 8,300 acres of farmland. Lehigh County has more than 16,700 acres preserved.

Applying for the farm preservation program is voluntary and the county does not solicit property owners, said Northampton Farmland Preservation Administrator Maria Bentzoni. Some farms that apply don't qualify. Bentzoni said farmland preservation has been allocated $5 million from the open space initiative approved by voters several years ago. The final $1 million of that total is being allocated this year, she said. All those funds have not been expended because Bentzoni said completing the process takes about two years and settlements on easements accepted in 2005 are just now being finalized.

With limited funds, Angle said some previous applicants have grown weary of waiting and no longer apply each year. Bentzoni said the county uses its funds now and a state-required ranking system to preserve the best and the most productive ground. ''We're basically, in essence, taking the cream of the crop off the list,'' she said, noting that farms lower on the list are not bad land. The county simply doesn't have the funds to reach them in any given year and those parcels may not be as desirable for a number of reasons, including clustering potential.

Another idea being researched, said Angle, is whether a municipality could use its money to buy development rights, and then have those rights purchased by the county at a later date. Other ideas also have been floated. The county could establish a cap on how much it will pay per acre to preserve farmland, or set a cap on the percentage it would pay of the appraised value. Municipalities could chip in to make up the difference, using their dedicated open space funds.

Finally, Angle said he would poll fellow council members on whether they might support the idea of a one-time county grant to municipalities so the communities can buy farmland rights. The county might be involved in contributing 20 percent of the cost in such a program.

Plainfield Township Supervisor Matt Glennon, who owns preserved farmland, said local funding option should increase the total pool of money available. He also suggested the study of capping acreage prices, a point that also interested Northampton County Executive John Stoffa. ''I think we should look at a cap,'' Stoffa told Angle and municipal leaders.

Glennon said the best option would be to find a way to match municipal funds with state funds.

He also suggested the county consider running an ''easement purchase insurance'' plan where municipalities would promise the county money each year from their dedicated earned income tax money for the county to use for matching purposes from the state. The additional money would only be enough to buy one or two extra easements a year. But Glennon said periodically the county would be called on to ''balance up'' with easement purchases for any township left out.

Bentzoni said the goal should be to link contiguous areas to create larger blocks of protected land.

If the county participates in easement purchases with municipalities, Bentzoni said the county can be reimbursed by the state for thousands of dollars worth of incidental expenses tied to things like surveys, appraisals and title work. If a municipality goes on its own, it can't be reimbursed for those costs, she said.

Bentzoni said partnering with local municipalities would make the county's money and the accompanying state matching funds go farther.

''The discussion is well-timed and entirely necessary,'' said Williams Township Supervisor Robert Doerr, who also sits on the county's farmland board. ''It makes all the sense in the world for municipalities to cooperate with the county and make county dollars go further.'' He said the task now is to work on the mechanics to make that happen.

Doerr said the county farmland board recently amended its program guidelines to allow cooperation with municipalities in farmland easement purchases. ''We kind of recognized that this is a natural progression,'' he said.

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