COLUMBUS — Some changes are coming to the way the Ohio Department of Agriculture administers the state farmland preservation program. The focus will still be on preserving land for agricultural use, but with a noticeably different structure.
Instead of a centralized program, state officials say they are devising a new program that will focus on localizing farmland preservation by certifying land easement companies and other professional agencies, to handle the applications and funds.
The requirements for becoming certified and which entities will be certified are expected to be more clear following the annual farmland preservation summit, Jan. 17 at the Nationwide and Ohio Farm Bureau 4-H Center.
Ohio Director of Agriculture David Daniels will explain the new program during the summit, along with Denise Franz King, Ohio’s farmland preservation director.
She said the state plans to release $3 million of the voter-approved Clean Ohio Fund money to fund farmland preservation in 2013.
The entities certified to handle applications and funds would have roughly 30 to 90 days from when they’re awarded the money, to decide which farms best meet the requirements of an easement purchase.
King said it has not yet been determined how the $3 million will be disbursed, or how much each certified entity might receive.
She said localization has been a topic of discussion since at least August of 2011, and that one of the advantages is the ability to “build the capacity of local programs, to give them more responsibility.”
The certified entities, once determined, will have more say over what happens in their region, and the types of properties that are preserved. King said they can localize and personalize their decisions, according to “whatever their priority is, as long as it fits within the law.”
In general, she said “we want to spend the funds in areas where it will make a difference, where there is a lot of local support, or in areas where they’re just getting off the ground and they need an opportunity to demonstrate.”
At the same time, the state’s Office of Farmland Preservation has also been reduced, from five staff down to three. And, state employees are seeing more responsibility as the program continues, King said, because of the number of easements and contracts that accumulate each year, and need to be looked after.
But while certified local entities will gain some control over the applications and selection process, other local entities might find themselves unable to become certified.
Judy Kocab, a volunteer from Ashland County, has helped landowners from her county submit more than 230 applications over the past 10 years. She fears the new qualifications for application sponsors — the people who submit applications for preservation — will displace local volunteers like herself.Although the details of a qualified sponsor have not yet been finalized, the discussion so far leads her to believe the new rules will require a “huge infrastructure,” including a staff of attorneys who deal specifically with land contracts.
If that’s the case, Kocab said she and other volunteers will be done, and the application process will go the way of well-established land trusts that have more resources at their disposal.
Maryanna Biggio, president of the Killbuck Valley Land Trust, said her organization plans to become a certified sponsor, but will “sit out” the first year, to see how the new program will work. Even though the Killbuck trust has its own professional staff, Biggio said she fears the new program will require a paid, full-time staff to meet all the requirements.
“Until we see how this plays out, our feeling is it’s going to be much more costly for professional time to do what the state is asking of us,” she said.
She questions why only some entities will be “certified” to handle the applications, when “Clean Ohio Funds were overwhelmingly approved in every single county in Ohio.”
King said the reason for certification is to ensure the local parties handling the program and the funds are qualified. In addition to land trusts, local soil and water conservation districts, and counties, could apply to become certified sponsors.
Andy McDowell, a field director for Western Reserve Land Conservancy, said his organization has been part of the discussion and intends to become a certified sponsor.
He said planners are “trying to make it as fair to all entities as possible who have had a history with the program.”
At the same time, he said it’s “pretty hard to give (every entity) a meaningful chunk of money.”
The ag department also has created a new way of reimbursing land owners who “donate” land to the state farmland preservation program. This is separate from the easement “purchase” program, and includes a reimbursement of up to $3,000 in costs related to the donation of farms up to 200 acres, while farms larger than that can receive an additional $5 per acre for the donation.
A total of $50,000 is available for reimbursements under the donation program, with funds coming to ODA from the Federal Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program.
For more information about farmland preservation in Ohio, visit the Farmland Preservation website under www.agri.ohio.gov, and register to attend the summit Jan. 17.