Agriculture, money? Pa. county’s future hangs in balance

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SALEM, Ohio – War waging in a quiet, ag-intensive community in Pennsylvania pits development against agriculture. With a twist.

It’s not the typical issue of urban sprawl: the city eating up farmland by extending its nucleus of growth.

In Warren County, Pa., the opposite is true. Farmland is stonewalling development.

The players. It’s a battle within an economically stagnant community that wants the new Wal-Mart in town – just maybe not on a specific piece of farmland.

Development is clamoring to come to the community but only if it can have a particular piece of property – one with an agriculture-use restriction.

In order to develop there, the restriction has to be lifted – something unheard of in Warren County.

That restriction guarantees farmers certain land will always be preserved for agricultural use. No Wal-Mart, no T.G.I. Fridays, no BP gas station – ever. Just farming.

But this 22.7-acre parcel of agriculturally restricted land sits smack-dab in the path of a development corridor, says Steve Sigmund, county commissioner.

Situated at a major intersection, along a four-lane highway, the fallow farmland is a prime development site, Sigmund said.

But it’s also prime for planting, argues Pennsylvania Farm Bureau spokesman Gary Swan.

To a county feeling the effects of manufacturers folding and expenses far outpacing revenue, the glow of a Wal-Mart supercenter is enticing. But it also may be a step down a dangerous road farmland preservation supporters don’t even want to go near.

Traditions. A long-standing policy in Pennsylvania says farmland owned by the commonwealth is restricted to agricultural use if it’s sold or transferred, Swan said.

Translated, this means the 22.7-acre parcel now owned by the county cannot be sold for development unless the deed restriction is lifted.

County commissioners are doing their best to get that restriction changed so they can accept an approximately $4 million bid from Echo Real Estate, a Wal-Mart development company.

The parcel is just one in a group of four pieces of land that would be developed at the intersection of Routes 62 and 69 in Warren. It is, however, the only one with an agriculture-use restriction.

In an economically struggling area, the boost from property taxes and jobs created is just what Warren County needs, Sigmund said.

Projected property tax revenue is about $864,000 a year and approximately 350 jobs will be created, he said.

Danger ahead? Groups such as Pennsylvania Farm Bureau and Pennsylvania Grange took a stand against lifting the agriculture restriction, saying it would set an alarming precedent.

Developers haven’t targeted land with agriculture restrictions because they knew it was off limits, Swan said. But if a restriction is lifted in Warren County, it opens a whole new world for development.

‘Starving to death.’ Sigmund recognizes the concern about setting a precedent but says the need for economic development outweighs that worry.

“We’re starving to death because of [the county’s economy] but we have a lot of farmland,” Sigmund said.

“If we have to cut a deal with the devil to get [the economy] going, OK,” he said. “Then once [developers] are clamoring to come here, we can turn them down.”

He describes Warren County as an agricultural area where there are approximately 69,000 farming acres.

“I’m not opposed to farmland preservation, but in this situation you have to look at the whole, big picture – the welfare of the county,” he said.

A bill sitting in the state general assembly aims to do just that. Not only will it lift the ag restriction, but it will also transfer ownership of a nearby parcel of land to the county so it can be sold. This second parcel does not have a restriction.

House Bill 66 was referred to a state committee in January, according to the office of bill sponsor Rep. Jim Lynch, R-Warren. The committee was set to discuss it yesterday, Oct. 29.

Perfect model? Pennsylvania’s farmland preservation program serves as model for other states, Farm Bureau’s Swan said.

How does it look when we’re giving up preserved land, Swan asks, particularly when millions of dollars are spent to sustain farmland through the state preservation program.

Technically, though, farmland won’t be taken away. In fact, some will be gained.

The restriction won’t just be lifted, it will also be transferred to another parcel of land in the county at a 2-to-1 acreage ratio, Sigmund said.

Although Swan said he has heard otherwise, Sigmund said a soil scientist with Penn State University looked at data and said the two properties were “reasonably comparable” in terms of soil content.

Other facets. As if the controversy isn’t heated enough, there is an obviously political angle.

The terms of the three county commissioners are up at the end of the year. If things aren’t finalized by then, how to proceed will be up to the new commissioners.

Sigmund said the six candidates are divided on where they stand on the issue.

“We’re working furiously to make sure it’s a done deal before they get in office,” he said.

Not surprisingly, the controversy doesn’t end in the political arena. It’s carrying on in the courtroom, too.

Sigmund said the county has been sued several times by landowners who think Wal-Mart should instead be eyeing their property for development.

(Reporter Kristy Hebert welcomes reader feedback by phone at 1-800-837-3419, ext. 23, or by e-mail at khebert@farmanddairy.com.)

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