Delaware farmland preservation mandate fails

The goal of the Delaware Farmland Preservation Program is to keep working farms intact instead of having the land developed as commercial or housing lots. (Delaware State News file photo/Andrew West)

The goal of the Delaware Farmland Preservation Program is to keep working farms intact instead of having the land developed as commercial or housing lots. (Delaware State News file photo/Andrew West)

DOVER — The Delaware House of Representatives voted down a constitutional amendment that would have mandated the state provide $10 million for farmland preservation annually.

Members were in favor 20-17, with four absent, but the chamber fell short of the two-thirds needed to change the constitution.

In 2005, the General Assembly unanimously passed a bipartisan bill setting aside $10 million from the realty transfer tax collected by the state every year. That sum was intended to go to the Agricultural Lands Preservation Foundation to buy development rights and keep land free from construction.

The law says the state “shall” allocate $10 million on a yearly basis, but the farmland program has received the full level of support only twice in the past seven years.

In the current year, $3 million was provided.

Rep. David Wilson, R-Bridgeville, the sponsor of the legislation, said state officials should not break the law “just because we can.”

Rep. David Wilson

Rep. David Wilson

“Because the law is not part of the state’s constitution, this funding is vulnerable and is being raided,” he said on the chamber floor.

The University of Delaware has reported the total economic contribution of agriculture in Delaware in 2008 was $7.95 billion.

Participants in the state’s preservation program first enter into agreements where they pledge not to build on their land for at least a decade. Later, they have the chance to turn their property into an easement, selling the development rights to the state.

The state has spent about $114 million on 808 easements covering 116,000 acres since 1996. Of that, 61,000 acres are in Kent, 42,000 in Sussex and the remainder in New Castle.

Of the 16 lawmakers who represent Kent and Sussex counties and were present Tuesday, 15 voted in support of the bill.

Rep. Wilson said afterward he was not surprised, but was disappointed.

“We’ve lost the cars, the chemicals is well on their way out,” he said, arguing for providing greater support to the agricultural industry.

Reach staff writer Matt Bittle at mbittle@newszap.com

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