The Cumberland County Commissioners voted on Thursday to issue a letter to Cumberland Valley School District asking the district to reconsider its intention to use eminent domain to override a farm preservation easement.
County Commissioner Jim Hertzler asked his colleagues to endorse sending the letter after the county’s Farmland Preservation Board voiced concern about the school board’s actions.
The letter “respectfully requests that the Cumberland Valley School Board reconsider its plans to acquire this parcel through the process of eminent domain,” Hertzler said.
The parcel is known as the McCormick Farm, located at 31 Old Willow Mill Road in Silver Spring Township.
The farm is owned by the estate Ui Ung Lee, according to county records. Since the 1980s, an easement over the land has been held by Natural Lands Trust, a nonprofit conservation group.
That easement restricts the owner to using the land in a way that will allow it to remain “open space for the scenic enjoyment of the general public and as a memorial to Thomas McCormick and the McCormick family,” Hertzler read from the deed.
The only way to eliminate the easement and allow development would be to have the property condemned. On Jan.23, the Cumberland Valley School Board approved the use of eminent domain to condemn and acquire the property.
In this case, it appears that the school district … is using this process because it believes that its going to get a better deal on the land purchase for its school expansion needs,” Hertzler said. “I believe that the sale price on the property is as low as it is because there is currently an easement.”
While the easement in question is held by Natural Lands, the county also holds dozens of easements over farms, totaling over 18,000 acres, according to the county’s most recent Comprehensive Plan.
The county’s farmland preservation program preserves open space and also serves as a farm stimulus program. Farmers are typically paid for granting the county an easement, thus giving cash-strapped farmers a way to continue farming instead of selling their land for development.
The county allocates $500,000 per year out of its general fund, in addition to state and federal grants, to continuing buying farmland preservation easements.
“The fact is that the employment of eminent domain under these circumstances, in my mind, has the potential to seriously damage public practice in regard to the preservation and easements,” Commissioner Gary Eichelberger said.
“The thing I still scratch my head over is, of the thousands of acres in Cumberland Valley School District, why is your first pick a preserved farm? It sets, in my opinion, a bad precedent,” Commissioner Vince DiFilippo said.
The county commissioners have no legal sway over the school board. But all three commissioners agreed that the county had a significant interest in expressing its opinion on an issue that could impact the public perception of easements and the use of eminent domain.
“I believe the main reason we’re considering this is because, in my judgment, we shouldn’t necessarily have one public purpose being directly at odds with another public purpose,” Hertzler said.