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Ohio Considers County-based Easement Programs

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Ohio farmland preservation advocates are considering a proposal to encourage county-based Agricultural Easement Purchase Programs (AEPP). The idea is to make state bond money available as grants to counties that establish local farmland-preservation programs. It also would assist smaller counties that lack the resources to do thorough planning.

Mark Forni, director of the Ohio Department of Agriculture’s Office of Farmland Preservation, created two subcommittees in the department’s Farmland Preservation Advisory Board. The first looked at the wording of questions in AEPP applications, and the second was charged with looking at long-term goals for the preservation effort and at possible dedicated funding sources.

For the last six years, all applications to AEPP have been made to the department and evaluated on a statewide level. That has led to $21.7 million Clean Ohio Bond Fund dollars (plus $7.2 million in federal grants) spent on 117 easements totaling 23,616 acres in 23 counties.

But 57 of those easements—nearly half—have been in four northwest and southwest counties, leaving out much of the rest of the state. The goal is to find a better way to include other counties because the livestock and specialty crops raised in Appalachia and Northeast Ohio are no less important to local economies than the grains raised in the fertile Corn Belt counties.

The department has been interested for years in the possibility of an AEPP transition from a statewide to county-based program. Forni’s predecessor, Howard Wise, liked the idea, and Forni has moved it forward for consideration.

Former AFT Ohio director Jill Clark chaired the subcommittee that studied the issue and made the recommendations. Current Ohio director Brian Williams served on the committee and Bob Wagner, AFT’s managing director of programs, advised the group on practices in other states.

A second section in the proposal would create another, smaller state-level “Priority Agricultural Easement Purchase Program” that would allow the agriculture director to designate funds to help local programs or to preserve unique properties that might not fit the goals of other local or state programs. These could include Bicentennial Farms in the same family for at least 200 years, or land in specific bioregions or microclimates, or production of specific commodities of statewide importance. This part of the proposal is designed to be flexible and to allow discretion on the part of the agriculture director.

Looking Beyond Clean Ohio Bond Fund

The next task is to look at farmland preservation funding beyond the Clean Ohio Bond Fund— which advocates hope to renew and expand through a ballot issue in November 2008. About 40 leading farmland preservation advocates from around the state met Jan. 25 at the agriculture department to discuss the future of Clean Ohio and the draft proposal for county-based AEPP. Some suggested local pilot programs first and others suggested a hybrid with state control, but some county autonomy. Still others wondered about a regional, rather than county-based program. Most wanted a continued role for land trusts.

The group will continue seeking comments through much of February on the concept and on suggestions for funding. One option for supplemental funding is to expand the three-year recoupment period for Current Agricultural Use Valuation land that is developed.

Currently, when such land is developed, the owner must pay three year’s worth of the tax difference between the agricultural value and market value of the land. If that period were extended to five or six years, the extra dollars could be directed to a county farmland fund to pay for a local preservation program—and be eligible for a state match.

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