Farmland Protection Board Submits First
By Dick Hughes
Special to Moorefield Examiner
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
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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