Looking into the future: Wayne County residents to decide on farmland preservation initiative

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SALEM, Ohio – When he thinks of the future, Wayne County dairy farmer Kurt Steiner believes his preschool-age sons will grow up and farm the same land their father does now. In order for them to have the option to do that, and for their sons to follow in their footsteps, Steiner also believes that a little creativity is needed to help keep agriculture in the Wayne County landscape.

Rural and urban voters will determine the fate of several Wayne County farms and rural land preservation when they enter the polls Nov. 6.

Wayne County’s Issue 1 proposes a .25 percent sales tax to raise money for county use for purchasing development rights on county farms and open space. If passed, the 10-year tax will generate an estimated $2.3 million annually, costing taxpayers roughly $4 each month.

Preservation and loss. “A lot of people have no idea how farmland loss will affect them or where they live,” said Amy Miller, coordinator of the Wayne County Office of Rural Land Preservation.

Her mission is to educate county residents on farmland preservation tools and options, including purchase of development rights programs and Issue 1.

She also believes that the time leading up to the November decision is a good time for county residents to analyze local land use patterns.

The county comprehensive plan, outlined by the county commissioners, designates a specific goal of preserving farmland and open space, Miller said.

Wayne County has lost 34 percent of its farms in the past 30 years. Since 1985, the county has converted 22,000 acres of farmland to nonagricultural use. In 1995 alone, more than 2,000 acres of farmland was converted.

The trend continues, according to the county farmland preservation task force.

State funding. Ohio voters passed State Issue 1 in November 2000, which created the Clean Ohio Fund. A portion of the $400 million bond issue is directed toward farmland preservation and funding purchase of development rights programs statewide.

“Wayne County residents have thought about the land use issue for a long time. Now that state money is available, I think we are going to see a lot of communities begin to vie for these funds,” said Tom Blaine, OSU extension specialist, who conducted a countywide survey of residents’ opinions on farmland preservation earlier this year.

“The good thing is this will definitely get folks in Wayne County to think carefully about the future of their communities,” Blaine said.

Survey says … According to the results of the survey, 39 percent of county residents who responded agreed that agriculture was threatened in Wayne County; 93 percent agreed that the industry needs protected.

“These results show that a large number of people in the county are deeply concerned about the loss of farmland and open space,” Miller said.

“The more we ask, the more we find that this is a very important matter for all counties across northeast Ohio, including Wayne County,” Blaine said.

Wayne County, along with Ashtabula, Carroll, Columbiana, Cuyahoga, Geauga, Holmes, Lake, Lorain, Mahoning, Medina, Portage Stark, Summit and Trumbull counties, compose the 5,800-square mile Eastern Ohio Till Plain, as defined by the American Farmland Trust. The area ranks seventh in the most threatened agricultural areas nationwide; 59 percent of developed land was classified as having prime or unique agricultural soils by the trust.

Similar programs have been successful in other states, including Pennsylvania, Michigan, Maryland and Colorado.

More leverage. Currently, farmers who want out of farming have two options: they can sell to another farmer, or sell to a developer. An easement program would allow farmers to continue farming but capitalize on the development value of their land.

Study results also show that 76 percent of respondents favor the establishment of an easement purchase program in Wayne County.

“We really feel that state money could leverage the county to do more in our fields and open spaces,” Miller said.

Clean Ohio Fund guidelines allow the state to pay 75 percent of easement purchase costs. The remaining 25 percent must be paid by local or county government, charitable organization or absorbed by the landowner, according to Miller.

“The availability of state funding will definitely accelerate our efforts. Even if the state program fails, we still want to establish and maintain an active farmland preservation and PDR program in Wayne County,” Miller said.

Times have changed since a similar sales tax proposal was defeated in Medina County in the spring of 2000, Miller said.

“The passage of the state bond issue, along with public reactions to continued trends in urban sprawl, have kept this issue front and center throughout the state, and especially here in Wayne County,” she said.

Program pioneers. Passage of the November ballot issue would make Wayne County the first in Ohio to use a PDR program to protect its farmland, according to campaign chair Mark Weaver.

Proponents and opponents have initiated campaigns, including airing commercials on public access television, erecting road signs, and distributing information at the Wayne County Fair. The Office of Rural Land Preservation also distributed materials to inform the public of the proposed program.

“This is something we all need to worry about,” Miller said.

“It’s time to think beyond where you live, it’s no longer the syndrome of ‘not in my backyard.’ This issue affects us all.”

(You can contact Andrea Myers at 1-800-837-3419, ext. 22, or by e-mail at amyers@farmanddairy.com.)

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At a glance: Clean Ohio Fund and agricultural easements

SALEM, Ohio – Measures have been implemented on the state level to encourage farmland preservation in all of Ohio’s 88 counties.

House Bill 3, which created a state program to acquire agricultural easements from willing farmland owners, was signed by Gov. Taft July 26, 2001.

The $400 million Clean Ohio Fund includes $25 million to be spent over the next four years to help keep productive farmland available for agricultural production through the purchase of agricultural easements. The practice is also commonly referred to as purchase of development rights, or PDR.

How it works. An easement is a permanent deed restriction landowners can elect to place on their farm. In some cases, the value of the property for development is higher than its value for farm uses. When that happens, farmers who choose to continue farming are unable to capitalize on the development value of the land.

Under the state’s program, by selling an easement to a local government or charitable organization, the farmer can be compensated for the difference in price between agricultural value and the fair market value to a developer.

In return, the holder of the easement pays the farmer the difference between the land’s developed value and its farm value. A maximum payment of $1 million per farm was set by the state legislature.

After granting an easement, landowners retain private ownership of their property and can still farm, use the land as collateral for a loan or sell their property. The land remains on the local tax rolls, and landowners continue to be eligible for state and federal farm programs, according to the American Farmland Trust.

Easement benefits. Easements are flexible and can be tailored to each property and the needs of individual landowners. They may cover an entire parcel or portions of a property, and can allow for farm expansion and the construction of farm-related buildings.

Easements also provide tax relief. The donation or sale of an agricultural conservation easement usually reduces the value of land for estate tax purposes. In some cases, an easement can reduce the value of an estate below the level that is taxable, effectively eliminating any estate tax liability.

By reducing estate taxes, conservation easements can help farmers transfer their operations to the next generation.

Program approval. Farms that apply for state easement funding will be ranked and provided funding as it becomes available, according to Howard Wise, executive director of the Ohio Office of Farmland Preservation.

Officials are currently focusing on drafting the rules of the program, which will be submitted to the Joint Committee on Agency Rule Review for approval. The state hopes for approval of the rules by January 2002, Wise said.

- Andrea Myers

About the Author

Former staff reporter Andrea Zippay wrote for Farm and Dairy from 2001 to 2009. More Stories by Andrea Zippay

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