Wal-Mart gets farmland with governor’s help

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SALEM, Ohio – After months of intense bickering, Wal-Mart will set up its kingdom of low prices and vast variety in the middle of prime farmland in Warren Co., Pa.

A hot debate raged from the moment the county mentioned removing an agriculture-only restriction on 22.7 acres of farmland.

County commissioners were poised to accept a multimillion-dollar development bid.

The only thing in the way was fallow farmland destined to an agriculture-only future.

Opponents argued the future and integrity of farmland preservation would be jeopardized if the restriction was removed. It would be the first agricultural restriction removed for development; it will set a precedent, they fought.

Others acknowledged this claim, but contended getting money and jobs to an economically depressed county was the utmost importance.

Gov. Edward Rendell sided with the economics and signed a bill late last month to remove the restriction.

County commissioners immediately accepted the approximately $4 million bid from Echo Real Estate Services. Development will include Wal-Mart, a home improvement store, 60,000 square feet of smaller retail development and a restaurant.

Ground breaking should be under way by fall.

Prime-time property. For two decades, the farmland has been excellent for growing Scott Wenzel’s sweet corn and strawberries, Wenzel said in a prior interview.

But it’s also prime for development, others argued.

The 22.7-acre parcel, along with 44 other acres purchased by the development company, looks at a four-lane highway and already sits in the path of development.

It’s also on the main thoroughfare to Johnstown, N.Y., where most county residents go to find a Wal-Mart, said Echo Real Estate’s vice president, Bruce Haney.

“That’s taking sales out of the state and we’re losing tax revenue,” Haney said.

Not only will Pennsylvanians stay in their own state to shop, New Yorkers will come to Warren County’s Wal-Mart because the commonwealth doesn’t tax clothing, Haney said.

Jobs, tax revenue. If economic growth was going to come to Warren County, this is the only place for it to come, development supporters said.

And that growth is essential, Rendell said in his letter of approval.

The county’s unemployment rate is 5.7 percent, higher than the statewide 5-percent average, he said.

Increased unemployment coupled with a shrinking tax base is something the development may help.

Haney estimates the development will bring 500 jobs to the community. In addition, it will bring in more than $400,000 annually in property taxes and more than $3 million annually in state sales tax, he said.

According to Rendell, this is the county’s first major commercial development of this size in 34 years.

Still not OK. From the multimillion-dollar sale, $586,000 will go to the county. The remaining $3.2 million will be deposited in the state’s farmland preservation fund.

Although the money will be earmarked for preservation, it doesn’t appease the bill’s opposition.

That money is going to farmland preservation, however it won’t help Warren County farmers because the county doesn’t participate in the state easement program, said Gary Swan, Pennsylvania Farm Bureau spokesman.

Rendell said the state will now be able to protect an additional 1,700 acres, but some opponents argue this isn’t enough.

Pennsylvania’s preservation program works because of people’s willingness to enroll their land, said David Bauer, county commissioner.

They participate because they want their property safeguarded, not because of a financial incentive, he continued.

“That knowledge – that their land will be protected – is now jeopardized,” Bauer said.

Moving, doubling. Despite the arguments about losing valuable farmland, this isn’t necessarily the case. The agriculture-use restriction will instead be moved to another parcel of land at a 2-to-1 ratio.

Both sides, however, disagree about the quality of that land – one side saying its comparable in quality to the original 22.7 acres, and the other side arguing the soil is poor.

But to most opponents, this isn’t the issue. It’s the concern that once one agriculture-only restriction is removed, others will also be challenged.

With the bill now signed, opponents are at a dead end.

“We will be watchful that passage of this does not set a precedent as we feared it may,” Swan said. “We’re hopeful this doesn’t lead to a degradation of farmland in Pennsylvania.

(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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