Interest grows in safeguarding area’s farmland

CHARLES TOWN — In April, more than 60 people attended public meetings sponsored by the Jefferson County Farmland Protection Board. An additional 240 people responded to an online survey about the program, said farmland protection Administrator Elizabeth Wheeler.

[cleeng_content id="889941506" description="Read it now!" price="0.49" t="article"]Both demonstrate an abiding interest in the farmland protection program, Wheeler said.

But even as interest continues, the program is having to make adjustments in the wake of the region’s housing collapse in 2008.

Gordon Hockman (right) and his father Jerry Hockman (left) own and operate a more than 400-acre orchard and farm near Shenandoah Junction. Since 2009, the Hockmans have deeded 284 acres into the Jefferson County Farmland Protection Program, says Farmland Protection Administrator Elizabeth Wheeler (center).

Gordon Hockman (right) and his father Jerry Hockman (left) own and
operate a more than 400-acre orchard and farm near Shenandoah
Junction. Since 2009, the Hockmans have deeded 284 acres into
the Jefferson County Farmland Protection Program, says Farmland
Protection Administrator Elizabeth Wheeler (center).

“As the organization turns 13 years old, we find that the challenges that faced us in the early years have changed significantly while the opportunities for action and leadership in Jefferson County have expanded,” said board President Elizabeth McDonald.

That’s where the strategic planning process comes in, McDonald said.

“The strategic planning process has reinvigorated and redirected the board for the next three years and beyond, clarifying what we do and why,” she said.

There are 39 farm properties in Jefferson County that have partnered with the Farmland Protection Board to protect nearly 4,000 acres.

The Jefferson County Farmland Protection Board was established under a state law passed in 2000 that allows West Virginia counties to levy a transfer tax on real estate to purchase development rights from landowners who wish to protect their land for agricultural purposes.

An agricultural conservation easement is a voluntary, legally recorded deed restriction that is placed on a property used for agriculture production. The restriction enables landowners to permanently protect the agricultural, natural, scenic and historic values of their property from development and subdivision. Under the program, property owners retain full use and ownership of the land. Because an easement is perpetual, it is transferred with the property when the property is sold.

From 2002 to 2012, Jefferson County spent $7.215 million on farmland protection. During the same time, agricultural land valued at $23.47 million was purchased for easement, while property owners donated land valued at $16.25 million to the program.

“Landowners have been generous donors, giving an average of 40 percent of the easement value of their land as a charitable contribution. This allows the board to stretch its funds to protect more land,” Wheeler said.

The board has matched every dollar of county funds with $.94 of federal money and $1.16 of donated value from landowners. The federal National Resource Conservation Service and the National Park Service/American Battlefield Protection Program have spent an additional $6.753 million.

The program’s strategic plan is expected to be completed at the end of this month.[/cleeng_content]

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