Ohio farmland preservation in limbo

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REYNOLDSBURG, Ohio – The economy of Ohio depends on the $93.7 billion industry of agriculture with its employment of hundreds of thousands of workers. But, according to the Ohio Department of Agriculture, Ohio loses about 200 acres of farmland each day to roads, stores, factories and homes. While ideas and proposals abound on ways to preserve the disappearing open lands, the largest obstacle is paying for them.
The question of how to finance future farmland preservation efforts was the main topic of a meeting Jan. 25 at the ODA headquarters in Reynoldsburg, hosted by the Farmland Center of the Countryside Conservancy.
Approximately 45 people attended, including landowners and those representing soil and water conservation districts, county commissioners, the Farm Bureau, planning commissions, land trusts and farmland preservation offices.
History. The Clean Ohio bond issue passed by voters in 2000 provided some funding for efforts to preserve remaining open lands. Of the $400 million from that issue, farmland preservation received $25 million for a pilot project.
The first year, the Ohio Agricultural Easement Purchase Program, coordinated by the Ohio Department of Agriculture, used $6.25 million. With matching federal grants and lower granted amounts, the remaining funds were stretched out to seven years, with $3.125 million left for the 2008 grant round.
Kristen Jensen of the ODA’s Office of Farmland Preservation presented the “good news, bad news” situation of the program.
Despite its initial skeptics, the Ohio Agricultural Easement Purchase Program has drawn 1,603 applications for 251,961 acres, with a potential easement value of $355 million. The bad news is that the limited dollars from the Clean Ohio bond issue or federal programs allowed only 117 applicants’ contracts to be approved, with a total of 23,615 acres and a value of $28.8 million, to date.
“The Clean Ohio Agricultural Easement Purchase Program was established as a pilot program and has been successful in preserving portions of the state’s most valued resource,” said Mark Forni, executive director of the department’s Office of Farmland Preservation.
“Although the Clean Ohio funds are in their final year, we will have some federal funds to support preservation efforts in 2009,” Forni added.
Still planning. Jill Clark, director of the Ohio Center for Farmland Policy Innovation at Ohio State University, listed new options for the program.
Clark, who also serves on the ODA’s advisory board, said the board is seeking input on how to have farmland preservation efforts sustainable. The goal is to increase local involvement with programs, funding, and monitoring, using the state framework.
Back to ballot? Bill Demora, executive director of the Ohio League of Conservation Voters, discussed a measure being drafted to reissue some of the Clean Ohio bonds that have been repaid. If passed by the legislature, $5 million could be used for farmland preservation in 2009.
Efforts are also under way to have a proposal similar to the Clean Ohio issue on the ballot in November of 2008. If voters approve the issue, then the legislature would still have to authorize the funding, which would not be available before 2010.
Gene Krebs, former Ohio state representative, offered insight on how the legislature works and suggestions on getting the support of elected officials. Krebs currently is affiliated with Greater Ohio, a citizens’ network promoting the smart growth concept.
Brian Williams, Ohio state director for the American Farmland Trust, relayed that there is optimism for increased farmland preservation funding with the pending farm bill, but that the final details are very indefinite.
Williams also said there is a possibility of having a five- or six-year recoupment of CAUV taxes for land taken out of agriculture. The different beyond the current three years would be used for farmland preservation at local levels.
After the official meeting and lunch, many attendees stayed for an information discussion on funding and other related topics.

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