COLUMBUS – About 30 of Ohio’s 61 eligible counties have farmland preservation plans, but most are waiting for means to implement their efforts. Passage of Issue 1 would help put the process in motion, according to one land-use expert.
“It would breathe life into the farmland program by providing local governments with matching funds to buy farmland development rights,” said Larry Libby, Ohio State University C. William Swank chair in rural-urban policy. “So it is absolutely essential to the local governments that have farmland preservation plans. Not all will try to buy farmland development rights, but many will.”
Issue 1 is a proposed constitutional amendment up for consideration by Ohio voters on Nov. 7. The amendment, if passed, would authorize the state to issue up to $400 million in bonds to pay for programs that conserve and preserve natural areas, open spaces, farmlands and other lands. Funds also would go toward clean up and clearance of contaminated industrial sites, called brownfields, and other land revitalization efforts.
Of the potential bond money, $25 million is expected to be used for farmland preservation in the form of Purchase of Development Rights programs. PDRs are a means by which local governments can buy from a farmer the right to sell land for development. Essentially, interested farmers are paid the difference between the value of the land in farming and the value of the land for development. Farmers retain ownership of the land, but the PDRs ensure it is kept permanently in agriculture, Libby said.
County or township governments that receive money would be required to provide matching funds toward the purchases, he said.
“Ohio has a law permitting the purchase of development rights, but local governments need funding to put that program to work,” Libby said.
“Discussions are already underway about how the state will distribute the farmland preservation money should the amendment pass. If it does pass, an additional specific law would be needed implementing a formula for distribution of the total bond fund. Further, the Ohio Department of Agriculture will develop suggested procedures for local governments to use in deciding which development rights to buy.”
But some environmental groups fear the amendment does not go far enough, and therefore oppose it, Libby said.
“The concern is with the brownfields part of the amendment, not the greenfields part,” he said. “The concern is that the state has an ineffective system for dealing with brownfields, so just putting money into an ineffective system won’t do any good. Environmental groups are worried that the system doesn’t hold polluters accountable for contaminated sites.”
If Issue 1 fails, local governments would have to try other means of raising money for farmland preservation, such as passing local sales or property taxes, applying for federal money through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, or relying on private donations. But those avenues are less promising, he said.
A Medina County sales tax proposal for farmland preservation failed last year, and the chances of getting enough federal money are small because there is only a small amount of money available for the entire country.
Farmland preservation is important because farms do more than produce food, Libby said. Farmland provides open space, wildlife habitat and groundwater recharge, as well as a nearby source of fresh produce.
“When people think of rural Ohio, they think of farming and want that image to be maintained,” he said. “But farmers can’t guarantee their land will always remain in agriculture on their own. Policy help is needed.”