Kent ag land preservation funding OK’d

DOVER — Kent County commissioners voted unanimously last week to authorize spending $100,000 this year to preserve farmland under the Delaware Agricultural Lands Foundation program.

The funds will go toward preservation easements across 15 properties and ultimately preserve 1,273 acres in the county.

According to the county’s planning department, the state program will offer matching funds for select purchases.

The Delaware Agricultural Lands Preservation Foundation approves applications using a ranking system that seeks to maximize benefits for taxpayers.

The foundation does not own the land, but rather purchases landowners’ development rights and has a permanent agricultural conservation easement placed on the property.

The easement purchases, starting financial year 2018, will the 22nd round of their kind.

To select properties, the Delaware Department of Agriculture (DDA) conducts “priority ranking” based upon the percent of “discount offered.”

Kent County selected 15 properties from the list of 40 provided based on their own criteria. According to the planning department, Levy Court’s criteria for the properties is as follows:

• Location outside the growth zone

• Consistency with the Kent County comprehensive plan

• Land Evaluation and Site Assessment (LESA) score of “good” to “high”

• Adjacency to lands for which development rights have been purchased

• Highest percent of discount market value

Program popular in county

Still in the process of drafting the 2018 Kent County comprehensive plan, the planning department’s surveys earlier this year indicated that residents are in favor of the $100,000 per year it currently spends on permanently preserving agricultural acres.

When asked, 45 percent of respondents suggested maintaining current funding levels, 43 percent would like to see efforts increase — only 8 percent thought efforts should be decreased.

Kent County leads the state in acres of agricultural land preserved. There are 693 parcels with a total of over 63,500 acres in permanent preservation in the county. Sussex County comes in second at about 44,000 acres and New Castle has nearly 14,000 acres.

Based on the 2012 Ag Census, Kent County’s total acreage is 46 percent farmland.

Last year, the Delaware Agricultural Lands Preservation Foundation completed its 21st consecutive year of easement selections in the preservation program.

According to the DDA, interdepartmental collaboration last FY led to the largest round of preservation in several years — 3,039 acres were added, bringing the total to more than 124,000 acres of farmland permanently preserved statewide.

Much of the acreage was added to the program due to matching funds provided by the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP), New Castle County and Kent County Levy Court.

As it happens, the state itself is among the top ten highest agland preservers in the country. According to the DDA, the state’s Aglands Preservation Program has permanently preserved 24% of the state’s total farmland.

According to a DDA report, almost $4.2 million was spent last FY on the new easements, which they claim comes at a 74 percent discount on average.

Benefits to farmers

Selling an easement is an economic boon to the applying farmer, but it also secures their land for future generations, DDA spokeswoman Stacey Hofmann told this paper last year.

“A lot of the farmers just want to know that their farms will always be farms,” she said. “They’re very committed to their land. Even if the farmer sells the farm, the easement will be on the deed so the land is perpetually preserved.

“No matter who buys it, it can’t be developed for anything other than agriculture.”

Often, farmers looking to expand their acreage have to do so in competition with developers. That, in turn, drives the land prices up and can potentially drive out agricultural investment, added Hofmann.

While higher land prices, increased population and a broadened tax base can be seen as benefits to the economy, few in the state would like to see that benefit come at the cost of agricultural activity — Delaware’s biggest industry, according to the Secretary of Agriculture Michael Scuse.

“Our state’s agricultural activities make up an approximately $8 billion industry,” he said last year. “It’s the one really big industry that’s left here. We used to have two automobile plants and several large chemical companies, but the big one that’s still here is agriculture and we want to keep it that way.”

Opponents of this type of preservation spending argue that by restricting these tracts of land, they’re removed from free market competition so they can’t be purchased for potentially more profitable, useful purposes in the future.

But, Mr. Scuse said that these are investments that help secure the future of the agriculture industry.

“It’s extremely important that we have a base of agricultural land that the companies in our region know are going to be here long term,” he said.

“Having a quarter of the state’s farmland protected in perpetuity, allows the agricultural industries to make plans for the future.

“There are states, especially in the northeastern part of the country that have lost so much of their agricultural industry and the businesses that support it and are supported by it in the last few decades.

“Our preservation program basically guarantees that this infrastructure will stay here and that supports a lot of business.”

Taking a cue from recent polling and the fact that she “never gets complaints about the program,” Kent County planning director Sarah Keifer is pushing ahead with the upcoming round of easment purchases with the commissioners’ approvals.

“The Levy Court has routinely contributed funds to the preservation program and community feedback indicates support for maintaining or even increasing annual funding,” she said.

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