Ag preservation tweak would aid property owners near growth areas

DOVER — The state’s Department of Agriculture is proposing a series of mostly procedural changes to its land conservation program.

One of those changes would benefit landowners near certain designated growth areas.

A public hearing will be held later this month to get input from citizens.

09dsn Aglands mapBeginning in 1996, the Agricultural Lands Preservation Program has selected applicants every year for land to be set aside free from development. The program allows property owners to enroll their land in temporary preservation districts, with the promise that they be used only for agricultural purposes for 10 years.

After the first year, owners can then sell their property rights to the Agricultural Lands Preservation Foundation at a discount. Land acquired by the foundation, an arm of the state, is permanently barred from development.

The goal, proponents say, is to save land from the ever-encroaching expansion of steel and concrete. So far, 116,000 acres have been permanently “preserved,” with new property being selected annually.

With the regulations not having been updated since 1999, changes were needed, claimed the Agriculture Department.

“Our staff and Foundation board members have reviewed the current regulations and removed items that are outdated, no longer apply or have been superseded by changes to state law,” department spokesman Dan Shortridge said in an email.

The most notable change primarily would affect landowners near some high-volume towns and cities.

“We are proposing an additional measure to give additional weight to properties that are near or next to growth zones,” Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Austin Short said.

The department consulted with officials from each county to determine what areas county chiefs consider to have the most potential for expansion and prosperity. The growth zones center around municipalities as small as Ellendale and as large as Wilmington.

Under the new regulations, properties located within a half-mile of the zones would receive additional priority in the ranking the foundation uses when it determines which lands to buy.

Applicants are sorted by how much of a discount they are willing to give, with the foundation moving down the list until it runs out of funds.

Someone whose development rights are appraised for $100,000 and agrees to sell them for $40,000 would be taking a 60 percent discount. Everyone taking less than 60 percent would be ranked lower.

If that same applicant is within a half-mile of a growth zone, he or she would receive an additional 5 percent in the rankings. That 60 percent discount would then be considered 65, bumping the individual and his or her land up the list. The owner still would receive $40,000.

Part of the original law says the foundation should look at economic development.

“This is an additional step that we’ve proposed to make sure that we are satisfying that requirement and giving priority to properties that are not within it but next to,” Mr. Short said.

While the next round of easements is typically announced in December, it likely will be pushed back this year due to the changes.

A public hearing is set for Sept. 23 from 10 a.m. to noon at the foundation’s office at 2320 S. DuPont Highway, in Dover.

The proposed regulations can be acquired by contacting Rebecca Vaughn of the Delaware Agricultural Lands Preservation Foundation at its address, 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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