For some of us, it’s hard to believe that three decades have passed since the late Gov. Robert P. Casey inked his signature on the state’s farmland preservation law, and Commissioners Bob Moore, Blair Husted and Marcia Myers took action to implement the law and the farmland preservation program here in Cumberland County.
The good news is that this landmark legislation of 30 years ago, coupled with the actions of succeeding boards of commissioners in Cumberland County, has resulted in the preservation of 20,000 acres of prime farmland in our county in perpetuity. This is a significant accomplishment. And it is a milestone that we hope to mark during a special ceremony Sept. 26.
This week The Sentinel takes a Closer Look at the struggle to maintain, preserve and develop farmland in Cumberland County.
But as the fastest growing county in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, it is my sincere belief that we can — and we should — do more to balance our growth by preserving more of our county’s fertile farm acres.
The plain truth is that while preservation of 20,000 acres is an accomplishment that we can all be proud of, those 20,000 acres represent only about 13 percent of our county’s approximate 153,000 acres of remaining prime farmland. And, importantly, the number of farm owners eager to participate in our preservation program continues to outstrip available funding.
That’s why I’ve proposed a resolution aimed at providing for a fiscally responsible and prudent increase in county funding for farmland preservation by establishing a definitive budgetary policy that reflects the county’s prioritization of the county’s farmland preservation objective.
The fact is, the vast majority of Cumberland County’s citizens support preserving more of our county’s rich farm acreage. Identified as a key goal in our county’s most recently updated comprehensive plan, 91 percent of the approximate 3,000 citizens who provided input said farmland preservation was important to them, and 81 percent supported an increase in the current level of county funding to preserve more farm acres.
The federal agricultural census has some surprising results for Cumberland County. So surprising, in fact, that most farmers aren’t buying it.
My proposal, unanimously endorsed Aug. 14 by the dedicated members of our county’s Agricultural Land Preservation Board, seeks to allocate one percent — a mere 1 percent — of our county’s General Fund budget for farmland preservation.
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The implementation of this practice for 2020 would generate approximately $875,000 from the county’s General Fund for farmland preservation, $375,000 more than the $500,000 allocated in each of the past three years. And when combined with state resources, it would allow us to preserve an additional 1,000 farm acres beginning in the 2020 program year instead of an estimated 750 acres. What’s more, with this policy in place, there would be consistency from year to year regarding the county’s commitment to farmland preservation as the funding level would responsibly grow as long as our county and its budget continues to grow.
While there are many variables associated with the cost benefit of government spending in a wide array of areas, there is little doubt that our investment in farmland preservation is an investment worth making. The county’s return on that investment is real. First off, for every dollar the county commits we are able to draw down more than $2 in state funds for the program. And for each and every acre we preserve, we save some of the most fertile soil in the world; we guarantee the continuation of local food production; we protect our natural environment, including our critically important ground water supplies; and we safeguard an economic benefit to our county estimated at over $14,000 annually.
Each legislative session thousands of bills and amendments are introduced in the Pennsylvania Legislature. Only a fraction become law, and an …
The Agricultural Conservation Easement Purchase Program, as it is formally known, enables the county, in partnership with the state, to purchase the development rights of land owners via conservation easements to preserve quality farmland forever. While zoning and land use decisions primarily rest in the hands of our locally elected municipal officials, the farmland preservation program is the only tool we have at the county to help guard against more and more warehouses and over-development.
Having preserved 20,000 acres of prime farmland is a notable achievement. But, for our citizens of today and those who will follow, I’m a believer that we can do even better.
Understanding that service in elected office is fleeting, Gov. Casey once said that the ultimate question for anybody elected and entrusted to serve is this: “What did you do when you had the power?”
So, as I prepare to retire from elected office at the end of this year, the question before not just me, but my two commissioner colleagues, is “What did WE do when we had the power?”
It is my hope that my colleagues will give this proposal the positive support that I — along with those dedicated volunteers charged with oversight of our county’s Agricultural Land Preservation Program — believe it deserves.
Jim Hertzler serves as a Cumberland County Commissioner.