Wayne County voters turn down farmland preservation initiative

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SALEM, Ohio – Wayne County resident Larry Weese didn’t swallow what he called a ‘poison pill,’ and his personal push to keep others away from the same bad medicine was successful.

Wayne County voters turned down a ballot issue Nov. 6 that would have created a countywide farmland preservation program. The 10-year 0.25 percent sales tax would have raised $2.3 million annually to protect farmland and open space from development.

A vote count indicated 14,221 votes against the measure and 9,515 votes in its favor, according to county Board of Elections officials.

“Purchase of development rights programs are the poison pills of all land use management programs, and thankfully we didn’t get this one shoved down our throats,” Weese said.

Weese, founder of Ohio Citizens for Responsible Development, spearheaded the campaign against the issue. He and his followers disagree with the PDR program for several reasons.

Not realistic. “A PDR program is designed to stop development in its tracks, but that’s not realistic,” he said. He believes that agriculture and development go hand in hand, in the proper proportions, and controlling development is the best way to go.

“This is politics, not personal animosity, and I agree farmland needs to be preserved. I just don’t think this is the way to do it,” he said, citing expense and intrusiveness as major factors.

Who benefits? County commissioner Cheryl Noah also had reservations after visiting Maryland, which has implemented farmland preservation programs.

“I visited and asked a lot of questions about the things they were doing, and all I heard was a lot of negativity,” she said.

“The very townships that were supposed to be preserving the farmland were the same ones with the highest development rates,” Noah said.

Another issue Weese had with the proposal was the cost.

“The PDR program is good for the farmer, because he can stay in business. I’m going to pay the tax, and he’s going to get the money. What do I get out of it?” Weese argued.

Please explain. Weese said many voters were unclear about PDR programs. “About 85 percent of the people I talked to didn’t even know what they were voting on,” Weese Noah concurs with some of Weese’s points.

“There are three groups that voted the tax down: those who hear the word ‘tax’ and automatically say no; those who were concerned but didn’t understand the program; and those who did understand but saw the negatives,” she said.

As a general rule, Noah said, county residents have proven to be tense about any new tax or expenditure during her nine years as commissioner.

She also said many farmers in the county were against the plan because of program restrictions, including the permanence of the PDR program.

“We had to look at the fact that most farmers in the county won’t tie their grandchildren down to something they may not want. They are still some willing to take the risk, but we had to take a look at the big picture,” Noah said.

What’s ahead. In the aftermath of the plan’s failure, both Noah and Weese see room for growth.

“I’m willing to sit down, roll up my sleeves and get something going,” Weese said. He’s already working on forming a coalition with Pennsylvania landowners “to continue to keep land use packages legitimate and not stop this in its tracks to the point where nobody benefits,” he said.

Noah is ready to look at a menu of choices, and go back to the educational goal of the county Office of Rural Land Preservation.

“Wayne County is still dependent on agricultural income, and we need the preservation office as a resource,” Noah said.

There are no plans for dismantling the office or eliminating any positions associated with farmland preservation in the county, she said.

Noah also proposes an annual forum to discuss county agricultural issues, as well as discussing options of land preservation including land trusts and inheritances.

“But this isn’t the time for the tax. The PDR program doesn’t have merit in the county, and I cannot put it back on the ballot from where I stand. I’ve got to think of the taxpayers, especially the senior citizens in the county,” Noah said.

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

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