SALEM, Ohio — Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf signed an amendment into law earlier this summer limiting the ability to use eminent domain on farmland in conservation easements.
The legislation, introduced as House Bill 2468, limits the use of eminent domain for parks and open space purposes by government agencies on land with conservation easements.
The bill was introduced by state Reps. Warren Kampf, R-Chester; Kate Harper, R-Montgomery; and Marcy Toepel, R-Montgomery.
The bill was amended twice on the Senate floor to exempt public utilities who condemn land (like pipelines) and exempt emergency condemnations from the provisions of the bill. The Senate and House passed the bill June 22.
The bill is now Act 45 of 2018.
Two school districts in the state — Cumberland Valley in Cumberland County and Lower Merion in Montgomery County — tried to use eminent domain to condemn privately owned land permanently preserved by farmland preservation easements held by local land trusts.
It didn’t seem right that school districts or municipalities could confiscate it, said Rep. Kampf, as there is other suitable non-preserved land available in each district.
“Before this, private land trusts didn’t have the protection of state laws like the state preservation program,” said Wayne Campbell, president of the Pennsylvania State Grange.
The act now requires any government agency to obtain Orphans’ Court, Pennsylvania’s local probate court, approval before using eminent domain to take permanently preserved land.
“It gives people and organizations with conservation as their purpose and those who benefit from it — to some degree all of us — some comfort, giving people a very significant level of comfort that their wishes will be followed,” Kampf said.
“If they would have been able to pull this off, it would have set a precedence.” Campbell said about the two school districts eyeing farmland.
“This is an example of how government should work,” Campbell said. “The public today, through education, is gaining a better respect for how important farmland is.”
Can farmland in easement be seized by eminent domain in Ohio?
Ohio Revised Code recognizes agricultural easements as a valid property interest in Ohio.
“We do have additional review procedures that kick in when public or private entities attempt to take farmland by eminent domain that is enrolled as an Agricultural District,” said Leah Curtis, policy counsel, Ohio Farm Bureau Federation.
The department of agriculture has to be notified, a report prepared for their review, and they have to review the appropriation and its impacts.
The director of ODA can also file suit to enjoin the taking.
To enroll as an agricultural district, the landowner has to show that they are participating in agricultural production and have 10 acres or at least $2,500 of agricultural income.
Landowners can sign up with the county auditor, the enrollment is good for five years, but there is a penalty if they take the land out of production before that five-year renewal.