Farmland program change frustrates NCC official

 

DOVER — Proposed changes to a farmland preservation program have sparked disagreements between a New Castle County councilman and the Department of Agriculture.

At issue is a series of alterations to the Agricultural Lands Preservation Program, described by officials as mostly minor changes. The one big change in the bylaws would award a bonus to landowners looking to sell development rights on land located within a half-mile of municipalities designated by the counties as growth zones.

On Monday, New Castle County Councilman Will Powers, who also serves as chair of the New Castle County Farmland Preservation Advisory Board, complained to the Department of Agriculture and Ag Lands Foundation that there was no advance notice of the changes.

Will Powers

Will Powers

The law requires 60 days’ notice for any changes, with the proposals to be run by each county’s advisory boards. In a letter, Mr. Powers argued no prior announcement had been made, a claim disputed by the Agriculture Department.

“Considering how extensive the changes to the bylaws are, the county advisory boards should have been given the opportunity to study them and make suggestions,” he wrote. “Therefore, I request that you keep the record open for 50 days following the hearing so that I may convene my board members to study them. We are in the midst of changing members for this county and it is harvest time.

“I would have preferred to do this in advance, but since the person in charge did not do what is required, I will settle for this solution.”

Agriculture Secretary Ed Kee responded in a letter Tuesday evening, noting officials had tried multiple times to contact the New Castle County advisory board.

Deputy Secretary Austin Short said in an interview Wednesday the agency tried to get in touch with county officials on at least three occasions between December and June. Kent and Sussex replied with the names of the individuals on their boards, after some prodding, but New Castle County did not respond.

“We believe we make every effort to reach out to the county ag boards, and we believe we’ve satisfied that requirement in the law,” Mr. Short said.

A public hearing took place in Dover Wednesday morning, and citizens have a chance to submit comments until the end of the month. He said about 10 people, most of whom were in favor of the changes, spoke.

In his letter, Mr. Powers also expressed concerns New Castle County is being overlooked when it comes to preserving land, a concern voiced by some attendees at the Wednesday hearing.

“Furthermore, initial compliance with the mandate to give priority to the threatened farmland 25 years ago might have prevented the loss of valuable and highly productive farms in New Castle County,” he wrote.

The foundation ranks applicants by how big of a discount they are willing to take. With property values typically being higher in New Castle than in Kent or Sussex, the foundation board tends to gravitate toward parcels in central and southern Delaware, Mr. Short said.

“I believe that the Ag Foundation since its inception up until now has followed all the necessary laws and regulations,” he said.

The department and the foundation intend to continue with their steps to change the bylaws, adding in the growth zone provision and removing outdated regulations.

The proposed changes can be acquired by contacting Rebecca Vaughn of the Delaware Agricultural Lands Preservation Foundation at 2320 S. DuPont Highway in Dover, at 698-4531 or at Rebecca.Vaughn@state.de.us.

Individuals wishing to provide oral testimony should notify the hearing officer, William A. Denman, at 678-3262, ahead of time. Written comments can be submitted to Mr. Denman at Parkowski, Guerke & Swayze, P.A., at 116 W. Water St. in Dover or at 678-3262 or wdenman@pgslegal.com.

Reach staff writer Matt Bittle at mbittle@newszap.com

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