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Task force would preserve farmland, open spaces for generations to come

Closing the door on a program to preserve farm, forest and open spaces would lessen the amount of agricultural ground and green space available for years to come, proponents warn.
‘We’re investing some county tax money in preserving some green spots for future generations,’ Councilman Carl (Buck) Mathes told the Harrison County Board of Commissioners during a recent debate of the issue. ‘New York City and Central Park: somebody had enough sense to keep part of that from development.
‘One hundred years from now, somebody might say we were smart enough to preserve some space.’
Farm, Forest and Open Space Task Force member Jim Klinstiver, a member of Harrison County’s Advisory Plan Commission since its inception some 30 years ago, said planning for the preservation of space is just now getting started. ‘To close the door on it would be a mistake,’ he said.
The proposal, though, has not garnered support from some of Harrison County’s land owners.
‘Some think the proposal might be zoning’s attempt to keep other farmers from being able to develop their land,’ said Commissioner Jim Heitkemper, chair of the task force. ‘That’s simply not the case at all.
‘It would only affect that parcel of land that people have voluntarily put into the program.’
Others have shown concern over the use of tax dollars to buy development rights.
Again, that’s not what would happen, said Heitkemper. ‘Right now, we’re asking for donations of those rights,’ he said, adding that donations of funds would also be appreciated. The county would apply for grants to cover some of the costs.
A major goal of land preservation is to ensure ground is available for farming. ‘Food is plentiful right now,’ said Heitkemper. ‘One hundred years from now, it might not be plentiful.
‘Are we squandering ground? We need to get started somewhere,’ he said. ‘We can only work on what we have jurisdiction over.
‘Harrison County could one day regret failing to preserve farmland, Heitkemper said. ‘I think it’s a food security issue.’
Once developed, farm land cannot be replenished, he added.
If a property owner wanted to donate land that is suited for development, or in the middle of development, the proposal could be rejected, said Klinstiver. ‘The board would decide if it wanted to take it, and if so, would negotiate a price.’
He added, ‘It has to work according to the (county’s) comprehensive plan’ for land use.
If farm land is accepted into the preservation program, then the farmer would be paid for development rights but would agree to use it for agricultural purposes only.
Federal conservation grants are available to help pay for the development rights, but it would probably be necessary for the county to put up matching funds to leverage those dollars. Up to $12 million in federal revenue has been made available through the state, which has shown an interest in farmland preservation, but so far has taken no action, Heitkemper said.
‘We need their support,’ Heitkemper said.
The task force has been authorized by the commissioners to continue its work for another year, and the task force was encouraged to focus on educating the public.
The commissioners, too, need to learn more about the proposed ordinance before agreeing to adopt it or shelve it, said J.R. Eckart, chair of the commissioners.
‘There has got to be a lot of public education to go along with this program,’ Eckart said.
Commissioner James Goldman said federal funds would require as much as a 50-percent match, which would have to come from county taxpayers. ‘I don’t think that they are aware of that,’ he said yesterday. ‘I have also been told by some council members that they have no intention of funding any such program.’
Goldman said, ‘I am also concerned as to who would qualify for such payments. For instance, if a person moved into our area and purchased 10 acres of farm ground to build a home, they could theoretically then sell the development rights to the remaining nine acres.
‘My problem with that is they more than likely would never develop it anyway.’
Goldman added: ‘Some farmers I have talked to have reservations about the program as well.
‘They fear that if they would enroll their farm into such a program, it would affect their net worth after the money was spent. Also, their farm would be valued at a lower rate from then on, which could affect their borrowing power with the banks.’
The commissioners agreed to seek $2,000 from the county council to cover next year’s task force expenses. In the meantime, the commissioners will continue to study the proposed ordinance.