Lower Mac’s all of the above Farmland Preservation strategy

I ran for Twp. Commissioner very clearly on a platform focused on farmland and open space preservation. In addition to protecting an irreplaceable natural resource I also believe preservation is linked to the health of our schools, keeping taxes low, protecting property values and our quality of life.  Want to keep taxes low? Preserve open space. With about half my term over I wanted to write a post highlighting what we’ve accomplished.

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Two weeks ago I had the opportunity to be a panelist at Renew LV’s #saveitorpave it luncheon. I was very proud to be invited to overview the townships efforts. Here is what I shared with a room of about 75 local leaders and advocates. In the last two years Lower Mac has gone from throwing in the towel to having what I believe is one of the most aggressive and comprehensive preservation strategies in the Valley. 

Lower Mac’s 6 pronged strategy. Using all the tools in the toolbox.

#1 The township is about to adopt an official map.
This was a goal outlined in my campaign. An official map is a combined map & ordinance designed to implement the goals and community vision set forth in adopted comprehensive plans. Basically if a preservation priority is on a municipal official map, once a developer notifies the municipality of their intention to subdivide, the municipality has up to a year to confirm its acquisition interest and negotiate to acquire the land. This will be the townships first line of defense. It makes sure the township has a fighting chance to preserve a property while respecting private property rights.

Learn more here – What is an official map.

#2 Zoning
We learned the hard way that zoning alone is not enough to protect our community. For over two decades the township relied primarily on agricultural protection zoning to preserve large swaths of prime farmland.

We all now know that an unfortunate number of circumstances combined in 2010 with a very pro developer Board of Commissioners and resulted in the loss of 700 acres of farmland that was for over two decades zoned protected. Zoning is one tool to keep in the toolbox, but zoning alone cannot be relied on to permanently protect farmland. It is not permanent and it is political. The wrong board can overturn protection zoning.

To this end the township planning commission has been instructed to work on a new conservation by design ordinance. Locations where growth is inevitable; smarter growth is the goal. Conservation by Design provides the opportunity for adding land to a community-wide network of open space. It manages growth while protecting natural and cultural resources for little or no public cost. It differs from traditional cluster developments in that it establishes higher standards for both the quantity and quality of open space.

Sprawl zoning on the left eats up all the open space. Conservation zoning on the right preserves and protects open space and natural features.

Sprawl zoning on the left eats up all the open space. Conservation zoning on the right preserves and protects open space and natural features.

#3 The County Farmland Preservation Program. Lower Macungie now has 4 more properties with active applications in the county farmland preservation program! The county program purchases developments. When this happens enrolled properties are permanently protected farms. If all the farms with active applications are selected and preserved we could have nearly 300 more acres of protected farmland in Lower Macungie Twp by 2017. An important part of this strategy is identifying potential tracts and making sure owners are informed about preservation opportunities and benefits.

A 5th farm property went through the final step to preservation earlier this year. We now have an additional 55 acres of new preserved farmland off of Mountain Rd.

Lower Macungie commits funds to preserve 55-acre Heim farm

#4 Funding
I believe in market preservation. This means compensating landowners for their development rights or outright acquisition. To do this we need to fund programs. In the 2016 budget the township did this with a 500,000 line item and an additional 150,000 we can leverage with the county municipal match program. Muni match is a pilot program championed by County Commissioner Percy Dougherty and modeled after the very successful Northampton County program of the same type.

Turning 200,000 to 800,000 for farmland preservation. 

#5 Transfer of Development Rights (TDR) is a market-based program that allows landowners to sell or transfer development rights from one property to a developer or landowner of another property who can use those rights to increase density of development.

In the case below we have a 200 acre agriculture property on our draft official map designated for preservation. Since the same landowner owns a 16 acre property that’s in an area designated for some targeted mixed use or village center density we can take advantage a TDR to transfer density to a more appropriate location. The result is promoting both the townships smart growth and preservation goals at the same time.

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Family and township pursue transfer of development rights to protect 200 acre farm

6. Act 4 reauthorization
Farmers and farmland generate a surplus of .75 cents on every dollar of taxes collected. This means farms pull their weight. And act 4 let’s us give them a break on tax increases.

Years ago Act 4 amended Pennsylvania’s Open Space Lands Act to allow counties, school districts and municipalities to reward landowners who have chosen to permanently preserve their land with conservation easements by freezing their property tax millage rates.

Lower Macungie, East Penn School District and Lehigh County all have Act 4 tax freezes instituted. End of last year we sent a letter to the Lehigh County Admin and Commissioners encouraging them to re-authorize Act 4. This means as an incentive to preserve, once a farm is in permanent protection landowners get a permanent tax freeze. This also helps farmers remain viable from a business perspective by shielding them from school property tax increases. This is a fair trade since in most cases by not developing their land they are helping to avoid over crowded schools. 

The “but for” test & farmland preservation.

Part of my opposition to the Hamilton Crossings TIF was a belief the township could attract desired development along the Hamilton Corridor without taxpayer subsides.

The majority of Lehigh County Commissioners took a same tact. In hind-site they were correct. Because of that decision County taxpayers will benefit from 100% of the new incremental revenue.

This general criteria is called applying the ‘but for’ test. Meaning, but for a subsidy will a community get desired economic development. In the case of Hamilton Crossings, the answer was yes. Therefore the subsidy un-necessary.

What about applying the ‘but for’ test to farmland preservation?:

With farmland preservation we are dealing with another form of infrastructure. Industrial infrastructure. A type that supports a $17 million dollar economic activity for the Lehigh Valley annually. At that figure we are just scratching the surface. Soil in Western Lehigh Valley is special. Regionally significant in fact. It is a natural resource. Lehigh’s farmland preservation program places the highest emphasis on soil quality.

Farmland is irreplaceable. Once gone, it’s gone. Cannot re-create it. We cannot re-build or manufacture it.

“But for” someway increasing the counties funding allocation there is no mathematical way we can hit the Lehigh Valley Planning Commissions established target of preserving 25% of our available land. This is an indisputable fact. ‘But for’ the funding increase we will lose the land. We will lose this economic driver.

Percy Dougherty and Tom Creighton’s municipal match program is a smart way to increase funding. It’s something I support 100%.

In a climate where we need figure out ways to stretch county dollars further and further this program does just that. This year in particular the increase can be further justified since this would be a re-allocation of Green Futures fund money to in large part what it was intended for. It should not be used elsewhere. Honor voters wishes and apply it to permanent preservation of an invaluable Lehigh County natural resource.

"But for" compensating landowners market value for farmland development rights, we will not hit the LVPCs goal of 25% preservation.

“But for” compensating landowners market value for farmland development rights, we will not hit the LVPCs goal of 25% preservation.

 

 

Mission creep in preservation efforts.

Over at ramblings Bernie is writing a series on issues that arise when otherwise well intentioned open space preservation programs experience mission creep. Good stuff. Brings up lots of very good points.

“Northampton County’s Open Space program is designed for farmland preservation, environmentally sensitive land and municipal parks. Like kissing babies, it’s politically popular. In many instances, it is also the right thing to do. But there have been questionable decisions like the preservation of cliff lands and swamps that could never be developed…”

There are many reasons to preserve open space. The one I focus on and that you would think all should agree on regardless of political persuasion is keeping taxes low. Want to keep taxes low? Preserve farmland.

When a local program strays from a focus on the preservation of developable properties – preferably actively farmed since it’s a form of industrial infrastructure – there is potential for mis-use of public funds. The number one criteria should be preservation of developable land where otherwise low value land uses like warehouses could be built. In other words land uses that do not provide a net financial gain for localities and generate very few jobs/acre and low revenue/acre vs. the new taxpayer funded long-term municipal liabilities created.

Preservation of natural resources is also a worthy goal. But I’m convinced the priority for local municipalities should be developable properties and farmland since you can justify use of tax dollars with lifecycle cost analysis of farmland vs. the alternative. There are other programs and ways to preserve the natural resources.

 

Young Republican County Commissioners Debate – Farmland Preservation Topic

A question was posed to Republican County Commissioner candidates about funding Farmland Preservation initiatives at a recent Young Republicans debate. Attending were all 5 (R) candidates for Lehigh County Commissioner. When it comes time for the general election RenewLV will pose the same question to all candidates again including Democrats.

Backgrounder: The County in the past has allocated funds to the farmland preservation fund ranging from 2M annually from 2006-2010 to a low of 0 in 2011. In 2015 the county allocated 250,000. When the County allocates money it receives $2.50 cents in commonwealth funding for every dollar.

My thoughts: Downzoning farmland is an unfair taking of property value therefore compensating landowners market value for development rights is the only fair and free market way to preserve farmland forever. Second, it’s a fact that preservation reduces local and state municipal obligations to provide services and infrastructure related to sprawl. For every dollar we spend to preserve farmland that is zoned suburban it saves us .15 to .50 cents on each one of those dollars down the road. This figure is even higher if we leverage our dollars with state and county.

For me, this is one of the most important issues as a voter. Preserving farmland is a key component in Lower Macungie’s strategy to keep taxes sustainably low over the long term. Learn more: Want to keep taxes low? Preserve farmland.

The question was posed “Would you support restoring funding of the County Farmland preservation program to previous levels” here are the answers paraphrased:

Marty Nothstein:  “I’m a conservationist” “I own preserved farmland” “Development is important but so is preserving our countryside””We need to look at more ways to preserve farms””We need to do a better job of finding strategic ways to preserve including partnering with townships” “We need to do a better job of finding money…” “When you have farmers that want to see their land protected forever, I think that’s important to residents of Lehigh County”

My thoughts: Marty was most aggressively positive in his answer. It’s very clear he is very much in favor of preserving farmland and even has done so himself. Based on this answer and conversations I’ve had with him it’s clear he would be a champion of funding the program as a Commissioner.

Amanda Holt: “Our natural resources our important and it’s something that’s talked about in the Pennsylvania Constitution.” “Important issue but I’m concerned the average age of farmers is now 57 here in Lehigh County. Looking at the cost I wonder if this is going to be an effective means of really preserving the farmland looking at the average age of farmers. This is something we really need to take look at. We do need to consider moving forward how we can adhere to what the state constitution says and what works best for our situation here in Lehigh County.”

My thoughts: Very good answer. Very impressed Amanda Holt referred to the state constitution. She is absolutely correct to do so. The state constitution in Article 1 section 27 says: “The people have a right to clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and esthetic values of the environment. Pennsylvania’s public natural resources are the common property of all the people, including generations yet to come. As trustee of these resources, the Commonwealth shall conserve and maintain them for the benefit of all.”

Amanda also was the only one to refer this last years funding. She correctly stated that the County funded 250,000. This led to a state match of 750,000.

Brad Osborne:  “I do know that farmland preservation has been promoted as a good program. The Green Futures Fund generated $20 million.  It ended.  Can we revive it?  Farmland absorbs only .33 cents of every tax dollar generated whereas residential requires over a dollar” “Specific requests need to be in line with the bigger picture.  A larger plan is needed.” “Property tax reform could change the entire question.”  We need to evaluate this further.

My thoughts: As usual Brad was prepared to give a very thoughtful answer. I was impressed he was ready with the statistics demonstrating the long term tax value of preserving farmland. As I write often on this blog, farmland is the best way to keep our taxes sustainably low over the long term. I would have loved a more aggressively positive answer, but I respect that Brad doesn’t put his opinion out there before he completely understands an issue.

Vic Mazzioti: “There are 3 ways we’ve funded preservation in the past. First, through tax dollars. Another was the sale of assets and we received grants from the state.”  “I’m for continuing the program. But if we do it with general tax dollars that requires further discussion.” “Meantime I think we should continue funding the program through the other two sources I mentioned. 1. Any assets that we sell. 2. Grants that we receive that permit us to use those funds for farmland preservation.”

My thoughts: Vic, gave another well thought out answer.

Dean Browning: “The program from early 2000 generated $30 million and we did not need to borrow.  We funded it out of revenue.  I was Chairman of the Sterling Raeburn Farmland Preservation Committee.  I see the benefit of the program, however I am reluctant to continue it absent any specific vote by the taxpayers saying they want the program re-instituted and number 2 identifying a specific funding source for it”

My thoughts:  I was disappointed by this answer. This could have been a way to really differentiate himself to voters in Lower Mac who by and large support open space preservation and understand how an investment today will keep taxes sustainably lower over the long term.

 

 

 

 

Why do we overlook a golden opportunity?

According to the One Lehigh Valley Local Food Economy Report – The biggest barrier to fostering a more robust local food economy is continued loss of farmland.

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130+ acre working farm in Lower Macungie. If the township doesn’t get proactive in preservation this will be 300 units someday.

Important to note since often overlooked: Agriculture IS a form of industrial infrastructure. Yet communities continue to pave over this invaluable asset only to replace it with uses that require additional infrastructure and strain local resources to sustain. Farmland is fiscally one of the highest value land uses in terms of liabilities vs. revenue.

  • Since 1930 the LV has lost 80% of it’s farms. Based on average diets Lehigh Valley farmers can only produce about 20% of the Valley’s food demands. With a market shift towards locally grown foods there is clearly money to be made in both local and regional economies.

All it takes are strategic investments in “food infrastructure” needed to support a local food economy. For ex: Aggregators, distributors, food business incubators, grain mills, and more food hubs. Even underserved and undervalued we already today have a local food economy that contributes 17 million annually to the LV economy.

900,000 residents with 145,000 more on the way. We have restaurants today who seek local sourced food. We have a network of municipal farmers markets. Eight Lehigh Valley areas today have limited access to fresh foods. *Super-majorities of residents value preserving farmland. Yet as a matter of mis-guided policy localities encourage the loss of the agriculture infrastructure. We have the will, there is demand, our economies will benefit. The economics make sense. What exactly is the holdup? Let’s acknowledge this as a regional opportunity!

What I can’t help but think is which forward thinking local municipality is going to recognize this and jump on it? A tenet of smart growth is utilizing existing infrastructure. Remaining farmland in our outer ring suburbs is just that. Who will make these connections and reconcile it with a communities desire to protect farmland and the corollary quality of life benefits. Which community will take the ball and run with it? Yes, it’ll take some time and a little more work vs. turning over a greenfield to a developer. And the benefits won’t be as immediate as one time cash infusions of a major real estate transfer. But over time it’s a move to set a community up for the long term. It’s the long play. The smart play.

For a community like Lower Macungie despite the continued loss of much of our land including 700 acres in 2010 the opportunity is still not lost. A local food economy thrives on small farms > 40 acres. These are the operations that grow the food we eat and we still have many parcels that fit that criteria. It’s incorrect to assume that only large contiguous acreage is worth preserving. The alternative is to pave them. If we choose that route we should be prepared to pay the long term price.

Screen Shot 2014-12-10 at 1.20.25 PM* Lower Macungie Parks and Recreation Comprehensive plan: 60% of respondents to public survey component rank acquiring and protection of open space as “extremely important” in a ranking of priorities. (the highest ranking)