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Chesco deal would boost preserved farmland

By Benjamin Y. Lowe

Inquirer Staff Writer

 

Dec. 9, 2003

 

If the county approves buying development rights to 380 acres, that would push the amount of preserved farmland to more than 17,500 acres.

 

WEST CHESTER - Chester County officials are planning to announce today that they have preserved more than 10 percent of the county's farmland.

Before the county commissioners meeting is a measure to buy development rights to three northern Chester County farms. If approved, 380 acres will be added to the preservation rolls.

That would push the amount of preserved county agricultural land to more than 17,500 acres, which is 10 percent of the 1997 inventory, Kevin Baer, coordinator for the Chester County Agricultural Development Council and Agricultural Land Preservation Board, said yesterday.

Colin A. Hanna, the commissioners' chairman, said that surpassing the 10 percent threshold was a major achievement for Chester County, where farms have been converted into subdivisions at one of the fastest rates in the state.

"I think [the purchase] underscores the seriousness of Chester County's commitment to agricultural preservation," Hanna said.

Baer said two of the three farms are owned by Charles and Ann Marshall of North Coventry Township. The third is owned by Chris Uebelhoer of West Vincent Township.

Chester County's farmland preservation efforts have been coordinated through two programs that have spent $76 million in state, county and local funds, Baer said.

One, the Commonwealth Agricultural Conservation Easement Purchase Program, was launched by the state in 1989. It uses a combination of state and county funds.

The second, launched by the county two years ago, is the Northern Chester County Challenge Grant Program, which uses a combination of county and local funds.

The challenge grant program, designed to fill the gaps in the state program, has enabled the county to assist townships with their own land-preservation efforts. The state program, for example, does not include horse farms, Baer said, and the county program can help with that.

The county program calls on townships to pay for part of development rights costs. The program, however, ends this year.

Both incoming Republican Commissioners Donald A. Mancini and Carol Aichele, who have pledged to support open-space efforts, could not be reached for comment about the future of that program.

Andrew E. Dinniman, the lone Democratic commissioner, said the decision to extend the program would be "the first test as to whether the Republicans will keep their promise to continue . . . the landscapes program."

If the 380 acres are added, total preservation acres will be 17,860 of the 175,400 acres of available county farmland, as catalogued by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Although surpassing the 10 percent threshold is good news for open-space advocates, a recent study by a Washington think tank found that far more Chester County land was developed than was saved over the last 15 years.

The Brookings Institution said in a report released this week that 29,400 acres of county farmland had been converted into housing since 1988. That is 12,400 more acres than the county preserved over roughly the same period, Baer said.

Statewide, Chester County has preserved the fourth-highest amount of land, state officials said. It is ahead of Lehigh County, but behind Lancaster, Berks and York Counties.

"The biggest problem is the land values are so much higher" than what the government can usually afford, said Edward M. Magargee, director of the Delaware County Conservation District. "Unless somebody really wants to save their land, it's an economic problem for them."

Purchasing development rights constrains the amount of building on a given piece of land, so that means counties often compete with developers for the remaining large parcels.

The competition for land is especially stiff in Chester County, where the population between 1990 and 2000 increased 15 percent to 433,500, according to census data.

"That's the race that we're in," said Ann Orth, director of land preservation for the French and Pickering Creeks Conservation Trust in South Coventry Township.

"Developers are offering staggering amounts of money [for land], and people who may have been of modest means are suddenly becoming millionaires, but the land is being lost," she said. "Those people, if we are going to protect their land, need to be compensated. We have to make a tremendous effort to do that."

She said a Chester County landowner with a 20-acre farm easily could sell it to a developer for at least $1 million.

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Contact staff writer Benjamin Y. Lowe at 610-701-7615 or blowe@phillynews.com.

 

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Last modified: 12/01/07