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Land preservation takes 3 steps forward

Two and a half years after the Harrison County Board of Commissioners created The Farm, Forest and Open Space Task Force, three ordinances ‘ taking major steps toward land preservation ‘ were passed by the board on Monday.
The three ordinances create a conservation program which will help Harrison County residents voluntarily seek financial aid in order to place their land into a conservation easement to insure their farm or open space permanently, or seek financial assistance for legal and administrative costs involved in donating a conservation easement or land for conservation.
Commissioner and task force chair Jim Heitkemper was pleased with the outcome of the meeting.
‘I think there is something to be said for all work we’re trying to accomplish,’ Heitkemper said. ‘It had the best interest for all the county in mind and future generations.’
The board was not unified in their decision to pass the three ordinances.
Commissioner James Goldman abstained from voting for an ordinance that would set up a seven-member board which would oversee land conservation in Harrison County along with a second resolution that would assist landowners interested in donating a conservation easement or land for conservation.
Goldman, concerned with the use of county funds, voted against an ordinance that would create a program to help landowners apply for federal and state grants under the Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program. Only tracks of land at least 40 acres in size with at least 20.5 acres in active agricultural production will be eligible to participate in the program.
‘I can just see them coming back to the county and asking for money,’ Goldman said.
Ordinance 2006-39 creates The Harrison County Farm and Ranch Lands Program (FRL). The ordinance will allow landowners to have conservation easements financed by the Harrison County FRL Program.
According to the ordinance, the FRL was designed by the task force ‘to conserve farm land and improve the local economy by providing local funds necessary to obtain federal matching grants under the Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program.’
The federal grant program provides 50 percent of the funding needed to purchase a voluntarily offered conservation easement on eligible land, with a local entity matching the other 50 percent needed.
The ordinance states that contributions made by the county to any grant application shall be capped at 25 percent.
J.R. Eckart, commissioner chairman, said at that point he did not see where the board could have funds available should they be needed by the land preservation programs.
‘As a county, we don’t have the ability to create a tax,’ Eckart said.
‘At this time we’re not asking for funding,’ Heitkemper said.’You’ve got to remember that.’
Goldman agreed with Eckart and said he was very reluctant to take on the tax issue.
The commissioners did unanimously pass a resolution which creates a fund to accept private donations and state and federal grant money.
The commissioners next step towards conserving green space in Harrison County will be appointing the seven-member committee set up through the ordinances to oversee Harrison County conservation and easement activities.