Clean Ohio farmland preservation program still seeks applicants

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SALEM, Ohio – Ohio farmers have been given a tool to help shield their property and agricultural production from encroaching development.

The $400 million Clean Ohio Fund includes a bankroll of $25 million to be spent in the next four years to help keep productive farmland available for agricultural production by purchasing land easements from voluntary applicants.

Remaining funds are earmarked for cleanup of abandoned industrial sites and related projects.

The state deadline to apply for participation in the grant program is April 30. This initial funding round will include $6.25 million.

Gov. Bob Taft signed House Bill 3 in July and voters passed a state ballot issue in November, authorizing the land use efforts.

“Preservation is definitely an issue around here,” said Kevin O’Reilly, Geauga County farmer and a member of the state farmland preservation advisory board.

“Road frontage lots in Parkman Township sell like hotcakes, and five of six candidates vying for the seat of county commissioner are using farmland preservation as a platform,” O’Reilly said.

The Ohio Department of Agriculture will accept applications made on behalf of farmers from county commissioners, township trustees, municipal councils, land trusts and charitable and farm organizations until April 30.

Where it counts. Efforts to save Ohio farmland would be most effective if focused on areas between 20 miles and 40 miles from major metropolitan areas, according to Ohio State University researchers. When mapped, the parameters include nearly all of northeastern Ohio.

“Depending on how you look at it, positive or negative, our part of the state is the hardest hit with sprawl because of the large number of metropolitan areas,” said Steve Hudkins, a member of the Ohio State University land use team from Trumbull County.

“The state is looking for strategic moves, blocks of land at least 500 acres,” he said, noting that teamwork and support of neighboring farms is key in the application process.

“Most farms in the area just aren’t that big by themselves, but if a group of farmers go together to form bigger blocks, that state will see a more sizable area” to fund, Hudkins said.

Producers banding together will show officials responsible for making funding decisions at the state level “the interest, commitment and support of farmers around here for preservation,” making them more likely to receive funds, provided other requirements are met, he said.

Funding criteria. Criteria for state funding selection includes land close to other agricultural lands, especially those that are protected from development pressures; land with valuable soil types, including locally unique or important soils, microclimates, or similar features; farms where agricultural best management practices are in use; where local comprehensive land use plans identify areas for agricultural protection; and land that faces development pressures, but is not directly in the path of urban development.

Some counties will not receive funding, and funds will only be put to use in counties or communities where there is already a farmland preservation plan in place and groups have been established to apply for the funds and care for the easements.

Grants will be issued for up to 75 percent of the appraised value of the easement, and applicants must provide matching funds for at least 25 percent of the remaining value. The farmer may also donate that portion of the value of the easement. The maximum state grant cannot exceed $1 million per easement.

Though the advisory board O’Reilly sits on will make recommendations as to who receives funding, state Director of Agriculture Fred Dailey will ultimately make funding decisions.

Underlying purpose. “Farmland preservation is nice for aesthetic purposes; everyone wants to be able to look outside and see open fields and a farm. But the basic underlying purpose of this is to protect the agricultural industry,” Hudkins said.

“This isn’t about anti-development, it’s about business and common sense – common sense of where to locate houses and industry, including farms, separate of each other,” he said.

“There are ways to develop land and maintain that rural lifestyle without spreading out everywhere and taking up a lot of road frontage lots,” he said.

Hudkins is also working with officials in Columbiana County to develop a land use plan. Farmers in that county are “somewhat behind in the application process because there’s no plan in place,” but officials are ready and willing to work with any producer interested in applying for funds, Hudkins said.

Landowners interested in applying should contact their county extension office or soil and water conservation district office immediately, Hudkins said.

Information is also available on the Ohio Department of Agriculture’s Web site, or by contacting the department’s Office of Farmland Preservation at 614-466-2732.

(You can contact Andrea Myers at 1-800-837-3419, ext. 22, or by e-mail at amyers@farmanddairy.com.)

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