by Joe Hainthaler at Lancaster Online

When it comes to farmland preservation, Lancaster County is the top county in the nation, with more than 100,000 acres set aside.

And this year, Lancaster County government’s nearly $2.7 million commitment is second only to Chester County’s $5.2 million in county dollars designated for farmland preservation in the state.

Yet Lancaster County will receive just a bit more than $1 from the state  for every $1 it spends on preservation efforts in 2014.

Chester County will get even less, dollar for dollar: 69 cents for every $1 it spends.

That compares to $17 in state funding per $1 spent by Montgomery County and $9 in state funding per $1 spent by York County to preserve farms.

Given Lancaster County commissioners’ reluctance to float any more bonds for farmland preservation, Commissioners Chairman Dennis Stuckey acknowledged it might be time to seek a change in state law to address this imbalance.

“We haven’t lobbied the state Legislature to change the formula in the statute to our advantage,” Stuckey said.

“Perhaps that is something we should think about as we consider future strategies for farmland preservation in the county,” he said.

The imbalance is “intentional,” at least in part, according to Doug Wolfgang, director of the state Department of Agriculture’s Bureau of Farmland Preservation.

The formula, set by state law, aims to provide at least some funding to all counties participating in Pennsylvania’s farmland preservation program.

Act 43 of 1981, Pennsylvania’s Agricultural Area Security Law, awards fully half of state funds for farmland preservation as grants based on the 57 participating counties’ realty-transfer-tax values. These values are seen as an indicator of development pressure, according to Agriculture Department spokesman Will Nichols.

Even counties that provide no funds for preservation receive the realty-tax grants. An example is Allegheny County, which will receive nearly $1.1 million in state farmland preservation funding, despite putting up no county funds for the state to match.

Lancaster County ranks fifth in the grant category, behind Montgomery, Allegheny, Chester and Bucks counties, in that order.

The rest of the money is given in matching funds, which are capped, leading to what Wolfgang called “a point of diminishing returns.”

The state expects to distribute a total of $30 million for farmland preservation this year. That’s a bit less than last year’s $33 million and below the $34 million spent on average since the program began in 1989. It’s far less than the high of $102 million spent in 2006.

Limited funding, Wolfgang said, forces the department to cap the amounts given to counties for the productivity of their farmland.

Farm productivity is determined by gross receipts earned by a county’s farms from crops, livestock and farm products such as milk, eggs and cheese.

Farm productivity, according to Matt Knepper, director of the Agricultural Preserve Board, is a big issue for Lancaster County.

“We think agricultural production should count for more than it does,” he said. “We should get more credit for having the most productive soils.”

To Wolfgang’s point, regarding limited funds, most counties receive barely more than $1 in matching funds from the state for every $1 they spend.

And the highest-spending counties — Chester, Lancaster, Bucks and Berks — receive something less than $1 in matching funds for each dollar spent because of the caps.

State Rep. Mindy Fee, secretary of the House Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee, said the committee has not considered any changes to the funding formula and she knows of no bills that have been offered.

“I haven’t heard anything from our local ag preservation leaders or our county leaders regarding the formula, and I haven’t heard that anyone else in the county legislative delegation has either,” she said.

“But I’m certainly open to conversations about it,” Fee said, “and to work with them if they have better ideas regarding a formula — and how those proposed changes would affect Lancaster County and the entire statewide program.”

Time to Increase Incentives on Farmland Preservation?
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