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TMCNet:  MONEY DROUGHT: Lehigh Valley farmland preservation efforts threatened by massive cuts in state funding.

[August 08, 2010]

MONEY DROUGHT: Lehigh Valley farmland preservation efforts threatened by massive cuts in state funding.

Aug 08, 2010 (The Morning Call - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- Robert Kroboth, a plain-spoken farmer, has a million dollars in his closet.

That's not literally so. No one in the Lehigh Valley makes that kind of money farming corn, alfalfa, soybeans and hay.

But that's what a set of housing plans, tucked away in his closet for the last two years, could have meant to the Plainfield Township man, who farms from dawn to dusk with his sons.

The blueprints show what could have become of the 60-acre tract near Kroboth's property until he took advantage of the state's farmland preservation program, which helped him buy the land in 2008 from a struggling developer in exchange for its development rights.

Now Kroboth can't cash in for an easy million, but his sacrifice ensured the land will remain as farmland not only in his sons' lifetimes, but in his grandchildren's and their grandchildren's.

Kroboth is one of the hundreds of farmers in the Lehigh Valley to take his farm out of the path of development during the booming housing market.

But it may not be so easy for other farmers to follow in Kroboth's footsteps. As the demand for new homes has all but dried up, so too has the pot of money set aside to preserve farms.

After spending an all-time high of nearly $102 million in 2006, the state slashed preservation funding to $20 million this year, said Doug Wolfgang, the director of the Farmland Preservation Bureau. Lehigh County, which spent $2 million a year since 2006, has no money set aside for farmland preservation in 2011. Northampton County, which has dedicated more than $1 million since 2005, doesn't know how deep the cuts will go, but administrators are prepared to see most of its preservation funding disappear, too.

"There's just not enough funding to go around," said Elizabeth Emlen, president of the Pennsylvania Farmland Preservation Association. "People who founded the program saw that farmland was being threatened and started this as an organized way to save farms.

"We've only started and now that's being threatened," she said.

The program works by allowing farmers to cash in on some of their land's development potential while protecting it from future development. Farmers receive a payment in a lump sum or installments in exchange for the land's easement, or development rights. The easements allow property owners to retain title, pass on the property to heirs or sell the property -- as long as it remains farmland.

Since it was founded in 1988, the program has preserved more than 4,000 farms and 400,000 acres statewide. Despite a statewide backlog of 2,000 farms spanning about 200,000 acres, candidates and program administrators are bracing for severe cuts.

"Because of the recession, the county hasn't received any new revenue since the second quarter of 2008," Lehigh County Executive Don Cunningham said. "This led to us needing to put a freeze on the program, until the economy and the county's finances improve." The program has received wide acclaim from farmers and voters alike since the state's first farm was preserved in 1989.

In 1999, 80 percent of voters approved the Growing Greener bond initiative, which boosted state funding to $70 million, Wolfgang said. In 2005, the Growing Greener 2 bond initiative, which ballooned funding to more than $100 million, was approved by a 2 to 1 margin, he added.

"When the economy improves, [there will] be enough public interest that perhaps we can look at other sources of funding or another bond initiative," Wolfgang said.

Dwindling numbers The immediate effects of the cutbacks are clear: Less money for land will mean fewer preserved farms.

The math is simple. Northampton County preserved 21 farms in 2006 and two farms so far this year, said Maria Bentzoni, administrator of Northampton County's farmland preservation program. Lehigh County preserved 14 farms in 2006 and two farms this year, Lehigh County administrator Jeff Zehr said.

"All my neighbors rushed to get in the program last year because we heard the money is drying up," said Kroboth, whose farm in June became the 100th preserved by Northampton County.

Next year, Zehr said, Lehigh County may be able to save one or two farms through the reduced state grant.

In Lower Macungie, the funding cut will exacerbate a development onslaught in the once-rural stronghold, officials said. Now the third most-populous municipality in the Lehigh Valley, Lower Macungie has seen crop acreage drop from 10,500 in 1971 to about 2,300 today, while its population has soared from 9,000 to nearly 30,000, according to county estimates.

The township expects to lose another 500-plus acres of prime farmland that farmer and developer David Jaindl plans to use for industrial, residential and commercial development under an agreement that helped the township avert the creation of a controversial quarry.

"There are still some farms left that [the county farmland preservation] incentives could tip the scales for farmers to preserve their land," Deana Zosky, a former township commissioner in Lower Macungie and the co-chairwoman of Renew Lehigh Valley. "Knowing how little is left, we should still try to capitalize." The cuts also will be felt in more rural areas that haven't felt the same development pressure, such as Lynn Township.

"Famers' chances going forward will be diminished," said Lynn Supervisor David Najarian, who also hopes to see his land preserved this year despite the funding dry spell. Farmland helps the township keep municipal costs down, he said.

"The costs for the township to maintain services to a cornfield are less than a residential area," Najarian said.

But the most frightening consequence of the funding cutback, advocates say, could be its long-term implications on the economy, the environment and a way of life that's as old as the commonwealth itself.

"Farming is the foundation of the Pennsylvania economy," Zehr said. "You can't get more fundamental than growing food." The land needed for Pennsylvania's $5.4 billion agriculture industry also helps recharge the groundwater, moderate temperatures and retain water quality, he added.

It's not just about time or money or the products of the land, Bentzoni said.

"It's about a way of life," she said. "An investment not only in heritage but history. This isn't about preserving dirt or saving dirt, it's about the farmers and the way of life their fathers or grandfathers began before them." A fading priority? Since the housing bubble burst and banks tightened restrictions on home mortgages, farms may be in less danger of development and less desperate for preservation dollars.

Certainly before home construction ground to a halt, farmland in Pennsylvania was disappearing at a rapid rate. The state ranked sixth in a nationwide survey by the American Farmland Trust in the 1990s for lost agricultural land. From 2002 to 2007, nearly 100,000 acres were lost to development, according to the organization.

With the crash of the housing market, though, home construction in the Lehigh Valley has plummeted since 2005, with the number of residential building permits dropping 65 percent in Lehigh County and 84 percent in Northampton County.

"The downturn in the economy has resulted in its own preservation of farmland," Cunningham said. So with development still stagnant, it might not be the worst time to cut preservation funding, he said.

"From a timing perspective, we infused the program with money and aggressively preserved farms when development was exploding and we were losing farmland at a significant pace," he said. "Now we're seeing very little development." But the lull in suburban sprawl is only temporary, preservation advocates say.

"Developers may not be knocking on doors but that's going to change," Northampton County's Bentzoni said. "It may not be this year, but that pressure is always there." For David Pattishall, the persistence of buyers in the boom years is hard to forget.

"I got a stack of offers this thick," the Weisenberg Township farmer said, holding his fingers 3 inches apart. "The doctors, lawyers, developers -- they'll be back." For the farmers, the preservation program has provided much-needed money for supplies, a child's education or a retirement home. It can help farmers expand even when up against millions in development dollars. It can help put the next generation of farmers in the fields.

Annette Pattishall used the $233,000 she received for her 65-acre Weisenberg Township farm's easement to buy a retirement home in the Applewood development. The spry 78-year-old Pattishall still climbs the steep hill to the steps of her century-old home on the farm, but as she gets older, she knows she won't always have to.

Her son David, 50, is considering sending in an application to preserve his own 55-acre farm -- although the money isn't as much as he would like.

"But I don't want someone undoing what it took me a lifetime to do," he said.

With only 400,000 acres preserved of 8 million farmland acres statewide, Wolfgang hopes Pattishall and other farmers look at the bigger picture, and the greater good.

"We can never match prices that developers can pay," he said. "The farm owner has to make that decision ... but also [know] this is preserving the land." 610-820-6613 To see more of The Morning Call, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to Copyright (c) 2010, The Morning Call, Allentown, Pa.

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