January 2005 | "Big Interest in Easements, " OHIO FARMER
Ohio Farmer, January 2005
"Big interest in easements"
By TIM WHITE
In November of 2000, 57% of Ohio voters approved the Clean Ohio Fund. In the spring of 2001, the state legislature passed House Bill 3, which enacted the $400 million program. The bill distributes spending authority to four state agencies:
Revitalization Fund., $200 million, Department of Development & Ohio Environmental Protection Agency
Conservation Fund: $150 million, Public Works Commission
Recreational Trails Fund; $25 million, Department of Natural Resources
Farmland Preservation Fund: $25 million, Department of Agriculture
It has been reported that some of the legislators questioned giving as much as $25 million for farmland preservation. The thinking was that there probably was not enough interest in the farm community to spend that much over the four-year life of the program.
Wrong. If you are one of the farmers who has applied for the Ohio Agricultural Easement Purchase Program under the Clean Ohio and been turned down, you are not alone. Last year, there were 271 applications from 30 counties and 13 farms were chosen. In the three years the program has been operating, 1,012 applications have been filed for 250,000 acres and 46 have been funded.
"For sure the demand far exceeds the supply," says Howard Wise, acting director of ODA, which oversees the program. With the help of federal funding from the federal Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program, ODA has stretched the funding for the program. In 2002, $6.5 million was spent. In 2003 to 2006, $3.125 million is earmarked for spending annually.
Expectations are that the final $6.25 million would be released in 2006 and
2007, if the Legislature authorizes it. However, based on the success of the program, there is a move under way to enhance spending. That would require a return to the voters in 2005 or 2006.
"We feel we have done a good job leveraging the money to get the most out of the program," Wise says. "The first year, we paid an average of $1,800 per acre for farmland easements and we're down to $1,500 an acre now,"
"Clearly the program is grossly under-funded," says Sara Nikolic, executive director, Ohio office of the American Farmland Trust. Sign-up is proof that interest in farmland preservation is catching on across the state, says Nikolic. AFT is a national group that works to encourage local trusts, rather than hold property easements themselves.
Interest in Knox County has been very strong, according to Doug Givens, managing director of the Philander Chase Corp., a land trust which operates near Gambier. "At first the program stirred up a lot of interest in the county. We've had 29 or 30 applications, but only one little farm has been funded. It seems like it is just getting harder and harder to be successful."
Part of that is because of the way the program is structured to encourage preservation in blocks and in areas where zoning is in place to encourage agriculture over the long haul. An emphasis on the soil ranking for the location has also biased the program toward counties with better soils.
"The difference in the scores of successful applicants comes down to a tenth of a point," Wise says. The regional difference in soil scores between southwestern Ohio and northeastern Ohio is 11 points on the application. We need to make changes in the system to open it up to more locations," Wise says. "After all this program was approved by
voters across the state."
The next round of applications is due Feb. 28. You must apply electronically at www.ohioagriculture.gov/farmland.
A meeting of the Farmland Preservation Advisory Committee has produced some changes for the next round. Already the cap on spending per farm has been limited to $500,000. For the coming round, the cap on spending in a given county has also been reduced to $500,000. In addition, repeat applicants will get an extra 1 point. A farm's gross sales can add 3 points. The county's agricultural production will also be included in the formula. Applicants who recently converted land or sold lots from their property will penalized.
"Will it improve the distribution of funds?" Wise asks. "We won't know until we run it."
Meanwhile, the number of farmers who are donating their land without the benefit of a purchase of development rights is on the rise. Don Bailey from Plain City donated the family's 60-acre farm along the Darby Creek to be held by ODA.
"My mother, Erna, who is 93, and my dad, Don, who has passed away, promised the man they bought this farm from in the late 1950s that it would never be sold for more than its ag value," Bailey says. "This way there will be no pressure to sell it for development."
"The woodlot has always been under best management practices and the easement assures that it will continue to be managed that way," he says. "Mom wanted it locked in and now it is."