Medina County in thick of PDR controversy

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MEDINA, Ohio — The future remains uncertain for a one-quarter percent sales tax earmarked for acquisition of agricultural and conservation easements for farmland preservation in Medina County.



Commissioners Steven Hambley, Tom Bahr and Patricia Geissman were expected to vote Dec. 20 on placing the issue on the March ballot. But the commissioners tabled the issue until a special meeting Dec. 22.



Medina County is among the first to attempt implementation of Senate Bill 223. Signed last January, the legislation allows Ohio and local governments to acquire agricultural easements for the purpose of protecting productive farmland from conversion to non-agricultural development.



The easements are voluntary legal agreements. The law allows local governments to pay for easement acquisitions through locally approved tax revenues.



Under a purchase of development rights (PDR) program, a government agency would pay a landowner the difference between the agricultural and development value of the land in exchange for a deed restriction precluding the development of the land for non-agricultural use.



Such agricultural and conservation easements still enable a landowner to continue to own and farm the land.



The Medina County farmland preservation task force has recommended PDR as a tool for bringing that county’s rapid growth under control. Since 1970, Medina County has doubled its population because of its popularity as a “bedroom community” for Cleveland and Akron.



There is sharp division between those who see PDR as a vehicle for preserving farmland and managing growth, and those who see it as unfair, economically unviable and an endangerment to private property rights.



Medina County Commissioner Steve Hambly serves as the commissioners’ liaison to the PDR task force. Finding the general public split over the issue, he said, “PDR is not that well known. We still need to educate the public on the initiative.”



He said seven of the county’s townships have been targeted for “clustering.” The strategy is to build a cluster of farms, creating an agricultural area that can be sustained with support services. Stabilizing land value is also an important objective.



The townships of Spencer, Homer, Harrisville, Chatham, Litchfield, York and Westfield contain 60,000 acres of prime farmland in the southwestern portion of the county.



Those supporting PDR believe it provides a incentive to keep farmers from selling ag land to developers. With the current problems in the farm economy, farmers may be tempted to sell to developers for premium prices. PDR program funds paid to farmers are intended to keep them productive and on the land.



“PDRs are not an attempt to eliminate growth,” said Mike Miller, Ohio State University Extension Agriculture and National Resources Agent. “They’re an attempt to grow smarter and better, in areas best suited to it.”



According to the latest figures available to Miller, in 1997 Medina County had 930 farms averaging 119 acres and totaling 111,000 acres of farmland. The Trust for Public Land, a national nonprofit land conservation organization, projects Medina County will lose more than 20,000 acres of rural land in the next 10 years.



“Everybody wants to be in the country, but there won’t be much country left,” said Medina County Farm Bureau President David Barco. “Now there’s housing on most of the frontage on country roads.”



Barco also said the resulting increased traffic is hazardous to farm vehicles and Amish buggies that must travel the county’s roads.



But, Barco admitted, feedback is mixed pro and con from Farm Bureau’s 3,162 family memberships in Medina County.



Among those not in favor of PDR is Wadsworth Township Trustee Virgil Mochel. “It’s not a workable attempt at a solution — not a fair one either,” Mochel said.



He believes it is unfair to expect a farmer to accept a “farm price versus a development price in today’s dollars and then be locked into never selling for the most money.”



Believing that PDR denies the next generation the right to decide the future of its property, Mochel offers the alternative of greatly reducing or eliminating farm property taxes as an incentive to make farming more profitable “so they can make a go of it.”



“A farmer needs $200,000 to $300,000 in equipment, buildings and land — why tax the tools he needs to make a living?”



PDRs don’t expire, they have an “extinguishment clause,” according to OSU Extension’s Miller.



An extinguishment clause allows land to be released from the program only if the land becomes impossible to farm, Miller said. “From father to son, the land is locked in. If the son doesn’t want to farm, he could sell it or rent it to another farmer, or he could let it lie fallow.”



But it must remain a farm and cannot be sold at a higher price for development, Miller said.



James Gerspacher, president of Gerspacher Real Estate Inc. in Medina, said he is not necessarily in opposition to preserving farmland, but is “doubtful of PDR’s economical viability.”



He questions how many farmers can afford to cash out part of the land’s value and sacrifice the chance to recoup the land investment in the future.



He expressed doubt that many farmers will find it acceptable to relinquish property rights in perpetuity at the expense of their heirs.



Gerspacher said zoning regulations already in place offer growth management and that PDRs will not have significant impact in slowing growth. However, he hopes it can be used successfully to sustain the concentration of farm operations in southwestern Medina County.

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