Jan. 2011 Edition

by Debbie on 03/01/2011

Carroll County to get award for PDR finance innovation


Preserved farm in Carroll County, Md.

WESTMINSTER, MD – Carroll County, which boosted its preservation program two years ago by reinventing the installment purchase scheme first used in Howard County in the late 1980’s, will be recognized by The Conservation Fund at its Green Infrastructure conference in Shepherdstown, WV in February.

The Carroll County program ended a fast-paced year, logging 3,561 acres in 2010, according to program manager Jeffrey Everett. Only half way through fiscal year 2011, the program has preserved an additional 2,232 acres, he said.

The Carroll program boosts tax-free interest payments in exchange for discounted principal. Installment purchase agreements in their original structure devised by the firm Evergreen Conservation Finance are used by a number of localities in the Mid-Atlantic.

The Carroll program was recognized by the National Association of Counties and the Trust for Public Land with a conservation award in 2006 for its Critical Farms program. That program makes rapid payments to help beginning farmers purchase land and preserve threatened farms. The upfront funds are later reimbursed by the state farmland program.

Carroll County was profiled as a success story in the Chesapeake Bay Commission’s new report on land conservation in the watershed, produced every decade. Carroll was one of only two counties profiled in a case study and the only one with multiple programs featured.

FRPP final rule out Jan. 24; call for comments on certification

This story has been updated.

WASHINGTON DC – After nearly 120 days of review at the Office of Management and Budget, the final rule for the Farm and Ranchland Protection program was published in the Federal Register Jan. 24.  According to Mark Rose, program administrator at NRCS, a 30-day comment period will begin today on just one section of the rules – that concerning entity certification.

“One subject the final rule addresses is the certification of cooperating entities. NRCS will be accepting comments on this section only for 30 days after publication,” he said.

“NRCS agrees that a more robust certification process will improve FRPP implementation,” the final rule states. Comments received at NRCS particularly urged that title reviews, which were taking too long to complete, be minimized for certified entities. In response, the final rule now requires that a certified eligible entity hold and manage a minimum of 25 easements as well as five FRPP easements “and have acquired these easements using industry-approved appraisals, title clearance reviews, and deed reviews for each transaction. This minimum number of FRPP easements will demonstrate the entity has experience with FRPP cooperative agreements and FRPP easement acquisition process,” the rule states.

In addition, NRCS will no longer require its own review of appraisals, title reports, and deeds of easement prior to acquisition “since a certified entity demonstrates, during the certification process, that it has credible processes of its own that ensure its conservation easements will meet FRPP

States now have their FY2011 FRPP funds and are announcing their application ranking dates, he said. Rose said that in FY2010 FRPP obligated $144 million enrolling 403 parcels consisting of 170,412 acres.

King County TDR has new focus on farms

BY DEBORAH BOWERS, Editor & Publisher
This story has been updated.


Issaquah, WA (Photo by johncao.com)

ISSAQUAH, WA – A longstanding battle over development in this scenic mountain community of King County, Washington, ended last month with a compromise that seemed to please all the stakeholders, a fairly rare occurrence. It came about through a mechanism well known to land use planners and conservationists: the transfer of development rights, or, TDR.

Issaquah had a population in the 2000 census of just over 11,000. It is adjacent to the city of Redmond.

In an agreement reached by the City Council and developers that satisfied community leaders, 410 development rights contained on three parcels were transferred onto one 35-acre parcel and 145 acres of mountainside forest will be protected in the TDR scheme, according to Keith Niven, development review program manager for the City of Issaquah.

The TDR program is operated by King County, and since its inception has protected 141,800 acres. But nearly all of the land, as in the Issaquah deal, is forestland, owned by both large and small timber interests or residential landowners, said TDR program manager Darren Greve.

“There are only two properties that are farms,” Greve said. “But we are working on a new strategy with a focus on farmlands,” he said. That strategy got underway in August 2010, when the TDR program purchased development rights on a 23-acre family-operated organic produce farm in the Snoqualmie Valley.

King County/WSU Extension Fall Harvest Farm Tour

“Rural farms face intense pressure from development,” said King County Executive Dow Constantine in announcing the deal. “But when protected through transfers of development rights, they can help ensure a consistent, fresh, local food supply to city residents for generations to come.” The purchase enabled produce growers John Huschle and Anna Davidson to buy the land they had been leasing.

Constantine set a goal last year to preserve 850 acres through TDR banking and through the county’s Conservation Futures tax. The figure was not arbitrary – Agriculture Program staff combined their own knowledge of local farms with a check of assessor records to reveal that of 59 growers selling produce in the county, all but 10 were leasing their land. The 49 leased properties totaled 850 acres. Most of those parcels, like the 23-acre farm recently secured through the first TDR-farm deal, are in the Snoqualmie Valley, where river bottom soils and temperate climate have given rise to sustainable and organic farming.

It is no wonder King County officials have been bitten by the local-food bug. At stake are 41 farm markets the county studied in depth to strengthen operation practices and boost by maintaining a database for growers called Puget Sound Fresh.

Expanding the use of TDR is also part of the county’s farmland preservation effort. Since 2009 the county has been working with the city of Sammamish to create a greenbelt and send development rights to the town center. The prospect of denser development in the town center was tempered with the offer of funds to create a city-operated TDR program that would acquire greenspace within the town. The benefit for the city of outlying farmland has been TDR program manager Darren Greve’s calling card.

“There is a direct, tangible, easy-to-digest connection between the cities where we’re asking the densities to go and the lands that are being protected,” Greves told the Seattle Times last September when the first TDR-preserved farm was announced.

Purchase of development rights, too, has long been in King County’s vocabulary. The county’s PDR program was among the early local programs in the nation, but while it was funded with a $50 million bond referendum in 1979, it was allowed to wind down, with very minimal growth since depleting those funds. It has preserved 13,200 acres, but program manager Judy Herring spends most of her time on stewardship of existing preserved farms.

“Very little of the original funding is left… there’s not enough to buy development rights on a lot of properties.” In fact, she said, the program preserves only one or two farms annually. A recent purchase was on a farm of just 15 acres.

Meanwhile the county TDR bank, which had an initial fund of $1.5 million in 1999, can work as a revolving fund as TDRs are sold, to purchase additional conservation easements.

At the receiving end, density or floor area allowances are increased by 150 percent.

According to the 2007 Census of Agriculture, King County has 1,790 farms and 49,285 acres of land in farms. Farms not in the Snowqualmie Valley and specially targeted by King County could benefit from a move by Gov. Christine Gregoire to focus state farmland preservation efforts on protecting the Puget Sound (see related story below).

TDR is at work elsewhere in Washington. In 2007 the state enacted an interjurisdictional TDR program for the four counties and 71 cities of the Puget Sound region. It became effective in 2009.

The Washington Department of Commerce and the Puget Sound Regional Council last September announced over $1 million in grant awards to 10 cities for TDR planning and program development. The funding comes from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Puget Sound Watershed Management Assistance Program to support planning at a regional level. The grants were awarded to cities in the four Puget Sound counties including King.

“With these funds, cities will be creating a market for developers to increase the value of their projects while protecting land that is important for farming, forestry and watershed protection,” said Rogers Weed, director of the Washington State Department of Commerce. The City of Issaquah received $100,000 for environmental and market analysis for planning its receiving areas for King County’s farmland preservation effort. Another King County town, Normandy Park, received a similar grant.

King County Private TDR Market Analysis
(Data from 2000 – 2010, excluding King County TDR Bank transactions)
* Over 50 private developers have used TDRs in their projects
* Over 60 private market transactions have occurred
* Nearly 500 TDRs have been bought and sold
* Average of 10 transactions per year
* Average of 108 TDRs bought and sold annually (However, in the last 3 years in the wake of the real estate crash, average annual transactions and the number of TDRs bought/sold have dropped significantly).
* $6.75 million exchanged between private developers and private landowners
* 1,090 TDRs allocated to private sending site landowners
* 330 TDRs redeemed by developers for increased density in receiving site development projects
* With 500 credits bought/sold and 330 redeemed, there is some credit speculation occurring in the TDR market (i.e. market participants buying, holding, transferring, etc)
* Current private market supply is 809 available TDRs
Source: King County TDR Marketplace web page

AFT sells MI farm, proceeds become revolving loan fund

CLIMAX, MI – The American Farmland Trust announced Jan. 19 it has sold a 660-acre farm it owned in Michigan and has used the proceeds to create a permanent loan fund for land trusts and local governments to purchase conservation easements in the state. Commitments will be limited to $2.5 million.

The farm, acquired by AFT in 1995 from Owen and Ellen Love,was sold with a conservation easement to two brothers last February. The net proceeds from the sale, all of which has been set aside to fund and administer the fund, was $2.9 million, according to AFT spokesperson Jennifer Morrill.

“Not only will the original farm stay in agriculture, the proceeds will help protect numerous other farms in Michigan. That’s a double-gift with lasting impact,” said Bob Wagner, senior policy and program advisor for AFT.

“The fund will help bridge the gap in local farmland preservation efforts in the state and will significantly enhance those efforts,” said Rich Harlow, farmland preservation program manager at the Michigan Dept. of Agriculture. The new fund is indeed significant, because Michigan’s farmland easement program has zero dollars. It’s website tells prospective applicants to contact their township or county to see if it has a PDR program.

Eligibility documents show that loans from the fund cannot exceed $2.5 million. Wagner said the loan fund “is intended to bridge a time gap between an opportunity to protect farmland and the availability of other public or private funding.”

Governors look to merge conservation agencies to cut costs

BY DEBORAH BOWERS, Editor & Publisher


OLYMPIA, WA – Budget proposals in at least three states – Washington, Florida and Maryland -include or could include proposals to merge conservation agencies or commissions whose objectives are perceived as similar. The cost cutting measures would affect agencies that administer farmland preservation programs.

Under a plan proposed by Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire, the state’s 11 natural resource-related agencies would be honed down to “five primary, function-based organizations,” according to a policy brief. The brief claims the move would save the state $2.5 million per biennium. The Conservation Commission, which administers the farmland preservation program, would be placed under the Dept. of Agriculture.

At least two Conservation Districts say the Commission’s autonomous structure would be sacrificed if that placement were to occur.

“Taking a locally led structure and stuffing it into a state agency silo will cut it off from its grass roots,” said George Boggs, executive director of the Whatcom Conservation District in a letter to his state senator.

According to Josh Giuntoli of the Conservation Commission’s Office of Farmland Preservation, a petition drive to oppose the move is being led by the state Association of Conservation Districts. Giuntoli said the estimated biennial savings from moving the Conservation Commission to the Dept. of Agriculture is $200,000.

Giuntoli said the governor’s proposals include a new focus on protecting the Puget Sound, and that farmland preservation and other resource based easement acquisition projects now in the pipeline could be culled based on location affecting the Sound.

Washington is facing a two-year budget deficit of $4.6 billion.

In Florida, Gov. Rick Scott’s transition team recommended merging the Department of Community Affairs, the state’s growth management arm, with the state departments of transportation and environmental protection. The three departments would become the Department of Growth Leadership. Along with the merger are proposed changes in how the state regulates growth, including ending a requirement that roads be adequate to handle projected traffic levels before development plans are approved and eliminating state oversight of comprehensive planning.

In Maryland, Gov. Martin O’Malley told attendees at a conference on sustainability Jan. 8 that he would consider merging the state’s Department of Environment with the Department of Natural Resources, siting some overlap between activities of the agencies. DNR administers a number of conservation easement programs including the Rural Legacy Program. O’Malley and the Maryland legislature face a $1.6 billion deficit and have warned of drastic budget cuts including possible layoffs.

NRCS associate chief Murphy to spend year advising in Afghanistan


WASHINGTON DC – Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack Jan. 18 announced that Ginger Murphy, Associate Chief of USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), will spend a year supporting the agriculture mission in Afghanistan.

“The Obama administration has identified agriculture as the top reconstruction priority for the U.S. government in Afghanistan,” Vilsack said. In Afghanistan, Murphy will help implement and refine the country’s agriculture strategy and will also help coordinate non-USDA agricultural projects.

Murphy, whose early career was in soil conservation including work on the Farmland Protection Policy Act, first went to Afghanistan last summer on a short-term assignment.

Murphy was state conservationist for both Maryland and Delaware before working at USDA headquarters in Washington. Murphy joins more than 100 USDA employees who have served as long-term advisors in Afghanistan since 2003. More than a quarter of USDA’s advisors have been NRCS employees.


In California… Gov. Jerry Brown is proposing to dissolve the state’s redevelopment agencies, a move that “would free up roughly $5 billion in annual tax increments that redevelopment agencies control and would redirect those increments to fund a range of local services,” according to the California Planning & Development Report published by William Fulton. The governor also proposes to end Williamson Act subventions, leaving tax breaks for farmers to localities. The state has a $28 billion deficit.

Marin dairy farm (Photo by MALT)

Marin dairy farm (Photo by MALT)

In Novato, Marin County, Whole Food Marketplace will donate five percent of their sales on March 22 to the Marin Agricultural Land Trust. MALT’s website recently posted a film clip on the Straus Family organic dairy operation, which in 1994 became the first certified organic dairy farm west of the Mississippi. In 1980 Ellen Straus was a co-founder of MALT. The Straus Family Creamery, one of 24 dairies in the county, produces organic milk and yogurt. Second-generation owner Albert Straus describes how he converted the farm to organic, and that a MALT easement enabled him to inherit the farm successfully.

In Maine … The Maine Farmland Trust launched a $50 million campaign to preserve 100,000 acres by 2014. The campaign was announced at the 70th annual Maine Agricultural Trade Show. MFT Executive Director John Piotti said 400,000 acres of farmland in the state would change hands in the next decade. “We believe strongly in the promise and potential of farming as businesses in this state,” he said. This year’s goal is $10 million. Half of that goal has been reached. “We need to preserve more farmland so existing farmers can afford to expand and so new farmers can afford to go into business,” said Maine Agriculture Commissioner  Seth Bradstreet. A dairy farmer who is entering a lease agreement with MFT on a farm it has preserved was on hand to talk about how the deal has enabled his son to plan to come into the business.

In Pennsylvania … The state approved the preservation of 15,939 acres in 2010.

In Maryland … The Maryland program in 2010 settled (as opposed to approved) on 8,289 acres, with 396 acres pending.

In New Jersey… The State Agriculture Development Committee (SADC) tallied settlements on 7,731 acres in 2010. The legislature has not appropriated funds to pay debt service and therefore no bond sales for farmland preservation are scheduled. NJ voters approved borrowing for farmland preservation last fall.


In Delaware … The farmland preservation program preserved 5,429 acres in 2010 and also preserved 872 acres in its new forestland preservation program. The program requested $6 million in the upcoming budget, more than twice what it received last budget round, according to program director Mike McGrath. The program would also like to see $2 million “for a new program to aid young farmers in purchasing, preserving and mortgaging a first-time farm,” McGrath said.

County program director to chair Garden State Preservation Trust

–  Ken Atkinson, director of the Gloucester County Office of Land Preservation, has been elected chairman of the Garden State Preservation Trust, New Jersey’s financing authority for all state expenditures on land preservation. Atkinson has served on the Trust board since 2008 by legislative appointment.

Atkinson has administered Gloucester’s farmland preservation program since 2003. During his tenure the county preserved more than 8,800 acres, more than doubling preserved acres to 17,000, among the highest totals in the state. Another 24 farms and 1,400 acres are planned to settle in 2011.


Feb. 3-5, State College, PA: Farming for the Future, annual conference of the Pa. Association for Sustainable Agriculture. Wes Jackson keynote speaker. “The annual Farming for the Future conference is PASA’s signature event and our main vehicle for community building. Widely regarded as the best of its kind in the East, this diverse event brings together an audience of over 2,000 farmers, processors, consumers, students, environmentalists, and business and community leaders annually.”
Feb. 23- 25, Shepherdstown, WV: National Green Infrastructure Conference, sponsored by The Conservation Fund. “The Inaugural 2011 National Green Infrastructure Conference is a gathering of policy-makers, practitioners, and on-the-ground implementers of green infrastructure practices and design from around the country. This is the first official conference of the National Green Infrastructure Community of Practice.”
March 17-19, Chicago: FamilyFarmed EXPO is a three day gathering of Chicago-area fans of locally grown and responsibly produced food and artisanal goods. Features: our world-class Financing Farm to Fork conference connecting local food producers with potential investors; the Midwest’s leading local food trade show, our Meet the Buyers reception, an innovative Food Policy Summit, and the scrumptious Localicious Party; cooking demos from celebrity chefs, educational seminars and an interactive Kids Corner.  Exhibitors offer a wide selection of local food, gifts and useful information to help you eat locally and healthy year-round. See familyfarmed.org.
April 30, Middletown, CT: Connecticut Land Conservation Conference, The conference will offer 24 workshops; 8 each in one morning and two afternoon sessions. The workshops will be preceded by a keynote speaker in the morning. The workshops are generally about 1.5 hours in length, with up to 45 people, attending each. Both basic and advanced training will be available.
May 31 – June 2, Charlottesville, VA: Virginia’s Land Conservation Conference, sponsored by the Piedmont Environmental Council. “Join land trust staff, PDR managers, volunteers, board members, public agency staff, and land conservation advocates to network with colleagues from across the state and learn about the latest advances in the practice of conservation.”

Va. puts $100,000 into farmland preservation


BY DEBORAH BOWERS, Editor & Publisher

RICHMOND, VA – Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell announced Jan. 6 the distribution of $100,000 split between eight localities as a contribution to their farmland preservation efforts. The counties of Albemarle, Clarke, Fauquier, Isle of Wight, New Kent, Northampton, and Spotsylvania and the City of Virginia Beach each received $12,500 as matching grants, although the sums are nowhere near matching: the eight localities together reported $17 million in local funds for purchase of development rights, of which $3,524,331 was reported allocated for FY 2011.

Last month the governor proposed adding $400,000 to the program’s $100,000 FY2012 budget, saying he was committed even in difficult fiscal times, “to setting aside funds for preserving farmlands, lands that are producing goods, providing jobs, and generating tax revenue for localities.”

Fifteen of the state’s 22 local PDR programs have some level of local funding available. Virginia has contributed $5.25 million to these local efforts since February 2008.

To date, state funding has been involved in preserving 4,047 acres on 27 farms in 11 localities. Another 511 acres on six farms have been approved and are awaiting closing.

Kevin Schmidt, coordinator of the Va. Office of Farmland Preservation, said he expects a bill to be introduced in the General Assembly that would set up a Virginia Farmland Preservation Fund “so that we don’t have to return our funding at the end of each fiscal year and wait to get it back the next fiscal year.” The General Assembly convenes Jan. 12.

Builders ask Ca. high court to review mitigation case


FRESNO, CA – The Central California Building Industry Association on Jan. 3 petitioned the California Supreme Court to review whether Stanislaus County should be able to require homebuilders to save an acre of farmland for every acre they develop, a program referred to as farmland mitigation. In Nov., an appellate court in Fresno said the county is within its authority to require mitigation, reversing a lower court’s ruling that the requirement was unconstitutional (see FPR, Dec. 2010 Edition).

The three-judge panel in Fresno agreed with county attorneys that sprawl-type development endangers the future of agriculture and that county law seeking to mitigate that danger was not unconstitutional.

“It sure seemed like (appellate justices) ruled on emotion rather than matters of law,” BIA president Toby Wells told the Modesto Bee.

Former farmland preservation specialist gets CT top ag spot

BY DEBORAH BOWERS, Editor & Publisher

HARTFORD, CT –  Connecticut Gov. Elect Dan Malloy on Jan. 3 announced that former farmland preservation specialist

Steven K. Reviczky will serve as Agriculture Commissioner in his administration. Reviczky has been serving as executive director of the Connecticut Farm Bureau for the last four years.

“I welcome the opportunity and challenges of this new role,” said Reviczky in a press release from the governor-elect’s office. “Preserving Connecticut’s farmland, increasing the availability of Connecticut grown food and products and helping the state’s family farms thrive have been my priorities and I’m eager to continue that advocacy when I return to the Connecticut Department of Agriculture.”

According to the 2007 USDA Census of Agriculture, Connecticut has 4,916 farms and a value of agricultural products sold of $550 million. The University of Connecticut College of Agriculture and Natural Resources reports agriculture is a $3.5 billion industry in the state. The state’s top valued crop is tobacco, ranking 7th in the nation.

Reviczky served in the Dept. of Agriculture for seven years before departing for the Farm Bureau. Farmland Preservation Program Director Joseph Dippel said Reviczky is a good choice for the state’s top ag spot.

“He is very highly and uniquely qualified, understands agriculture and farmland preservation. His diverse skill set will make him a very valuable member of the Malloy administration,” Dippel said.

In his new job, Reviczky will weigh in on whether to continue the state’s subsidies to dairy farmers. At least part of the funding for the dairy program came from farmland preservation funding sources, and the fund diversion was to sunset after two years. That sunset date will come in July.

During his tenure at the Dept. of Agriculture, Reviczky, a Coventry farmer, oversaw the state’s first grants under the Farm and Ranchland Protection Program and reviewed applications to the state’s purchase of development rights program.

The state farmland preservation program has preserved 36,450 acres and 279 farms to date. The program has 2,200 acres on 20 farms scheduled to settle in the coming months, according to Dippel.

Tax Relief and Spending Squeeze

BY TOM DANIELS, Senior Contributing Editor

Tom D 2On Dec. 17 President Obama signed The Tax Relief, Unemployment Insurance Reauthorization, and Job Creation Act of 2010. The Act included a generous pair of Christmas gifts for farmers.  First, the estate tax, which was zero in 2010, was scheduled to return in 2011 with a $1 million personal exemption and a maximum rate of 55%. But in his haste to extend unemployment benefits to the long-term unemployed, President Obama agreed with the Republican leadership to raise the estate exemption to $5 million and lower the rate on estates above $5 million to 35%. As a result, only a few thousand estates will be taxed each year and if farm families plan their estates properly, Mom and Dad can leave their heirs at least $10 million in assets free of federal tax.

The $10 million exemption will help farmers in metropolitan areas where the value of farm real estate is higher for growing houses and strip malls than for raising crops and livestock. But the greater exemption removes an incentive to donate a conservation easement or do a bargain sale. Similarly, ranchers near western ski resorts may not need to donate conservation easements to reduce the value of their land to avoid estate taxes.

Second, the 2010 tax deal extended until the end of 2012 the favorable deduction schedule for donated conservation easements first passed in 2006 and made it retroactive to Jan. 1, 2010. Farmers can deduct up to 100% of the value of an easement in the year in which the easement was donated; non-farmers can deduct up to 50% of the easement value in a year. Both farmers and non-farmers may use a deduction for up to 16 years or until it is exhausted, whichever comes first. The Land Trust Alliance claims that this expanded deduction has been instrumental in the preservation of one million additional acres, and is pushing to make the more generous deduction permanent.

The tax deal, which included extending the Bush tax cuts of 2001 for another two years carries an estimated price tag of more than $850 billion over ten years. Although the federal deficit reached a modern day record of $1.3 trillion in fiscal 2010, Congress decided that a tax cut was what a recovering economy needed, the burgeoning federal debt be damned.

So the question arises: Are we borrowing money from the Chinese to pay for preserving our farmland?

The answer is yes and no. Yes, a tax reduction means a larger budget deficit and more borrowing. And, yes, the Chinese hold more U.S. Treasury bonds than any other country, which apparently we Americans hope will continue. Otherwise, we will have to raise interest rates. The answer is also no, because federal, state, and local government funds along with private money are being spent on farmland preservation. The only problem is that these funds are being squeezed as public budgets tighten and the private sector continues to recover from the Great recession of 2007-2009.

Here are a few situations to consider. The federal Farm Bill is likely to be delayed until 2012, if not 2013. This is actually positive for the Farm and Ranchland Protection Program, which is authorized for more than $100 million a year. Yet, authorized does not mean budgeted, and those funds will be vulnerable as Congress looks to trim spending. In 2011, state government revenues are expected to run more than $100 billion short. Because states (except Vermont) cannot legally run budget deficits, they will have to cut a variety of programs, and farmland preservation will have to take its fair share of the hit. The story at the local level is not much brighter, even though the interest rates on bonds to pay for preserving land are at rock bottom.  Floating a bond still means raising taxes, not a popular course of action right now.

The private sector—especially, foundations and major donors—have felt the pinch of the stock market decline from record levels and the real estate meltdown. One bright spot is that real estate developers are not proposing many new projects that would convert farmland. Rather, several developers have unloaded land or done easement deals with preservationists.

Getting the tax and spending mix for farmland preservation should be a matter of debate, not just among preservationists or farmers, but as part of a public discussion of what government should do to protect farmland and what the private sector can be expected to do.

Tom Daniels teaches land use planning at the University of Pennsylvania. He is author of The Small Town Planning Handbook and other books.

Janus: What Does He See for Preservation?

BY MIKE MCGRATH, Contributing Editor

Mike McGrath

In ancient Rome Janus was the god of beginnings and endings.  Depicted with two faces he was able to look simultaneously into the past, and forward, into the future.  As we are in his namesake month (January) it’s a good time to look back – and to look forward.

Well, 2010, it turns out, was not such a bad year for farmland preservation.  For one thing the number one item on my gift list for preservationists showed up on our front step.  The favorable tax treatment for donated easements got passed, along with a host of other tax and unemployment measures (see Tom Daniels’ excellent review of the details in this edition).  It’s not every year you get your biggest present – but that was it – especially considering that the inheritance tax remains favorable to landowners – at least for a while!  The president and Congress came through for farmland preservation!

On the funding front 2010 was not as tough as it could have been.  At least here in Delaware some extra money came along at the end of budget-writing and made it possible to match most all of the available federal funding.  Not bad, considering that we could have been zeroed out.  I hope you were as fortunate.  And the key to continued support remains building your support base throughout the electorate and making the case for the wisdom of preservation funding.  But there are always more applications for permanent preservation than there is money to meet the need.  And that’s a good thing!

And speaking of applications for preservation, 2010 continued a strengthening trend in that area.  From the farmers I talk to there is a growing realization that the development bubble was illusory, at best, and downright damaging, at worst!  Many landowners were the ones who suffered financially when the development plans went “south.”  In many (if not most) cases the landowner had been convinced to put a mortgage on the farm to pay for engineering and legal work to create the plan.  Now the developer is in bankruptcy and the farmer’s left holding the bag.  Most landowners that were not in such a position  now realize that their “best bet” is to preserve the land, make long-term investments in agricultural production and commit to a long-range business plan – in farming!  The result in our office has been a steady stream of applications for permanent preservation.

And like any year we are all older and wiser.  A benefit not to be sneezed at!  As I’ve grown older I have a better perspective on the value of wisdom that comes with age.  But in order for this inevitable onward march of time to become a valuable asset we must seize it.  Let me recommend an approach that you may find valuable.  At the end of every year I have started the habit of cataloging some key things I’ve learned.  I don’t try to make the list too long – just ten to fifteen items that have come up during the year that may have lasting value.  They may be big or small, but they had real value.  I then write down beside each one how I can continue to use that knowledge, improve on its effectiveness and expand it to other areas or in other ways.  Then I keep the annotated list handy and look at it every once in a while and try to keep applying the new knowledge.  Give it a try and I think you’ll find the habit useful in the business of preservation.  So, continuing in this vein, let’s look forward into 2011.

A time-honored approach for preparing for the New Year is to make a few, well-chosen New Year’s resolutions.  So, here are my resolutions for farmland preservation in 2011.

  • I will quit complaining about the USDA administration of the FRPP and the lack of a final rule. Anyway, I feel like the voice teacher for a pig – I’ve been wasting my time and they’re annoyed!
  • I will take time to thank those I work with in preservation. At times this can be a solitary and thankless job.  While most of us have internalized our job satisfaction and feelings of accomplishment it never hurts to hear it from someone else!  If you haven’t done it lately thank your employees, or (Heaven forbid!) thank your boss who leads the preservation office, or the Top Dog for letting you work in this wonderful field of endeavor.
  • I will thank the landowners who preserve their farms. Ever since I signed the papers at my very first closing of an easement I have always taken the time at the end to say something like, “On behalf of all the citizens of Delaware I want to thank you for preserving your farm for future generations of Delawareans.”  People really like to hear that – and moreover – it’s true!
  • I will work every day like it was my first day on the job. Nothing makes the year fly by like enthusiasm and a belief in what you do.  Do you remember what you felt like when you first came on the job to do preservation?  I do!  It was exciting!  Twenty-eight years ago I started in preservation.  It was 12 years before I signed my first easement – but I managed to stay excited about the possibilities during that time and have been even more excited since then. The time has flown by.  It hardly seems like 28 years have gone by and I’ll be retiring in 2011.  I hope 2011 flies by for you and many things are accomplished in your sphere of influence.

Yes, like the Roman god Janus we can look back on some accomplishments.  We can look forward with hope and enthusiasm to the year ahead.  But like Janus, our lives are lived in the present.  Let’s make every moment count for preservation and those of us who love working in this “vineyard!”

Mike McGrath is director of the Delaware Agricultural Lands Preservation Foundation.

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