Farmland preservation tax will be on November ballot

| 28 Sep 2011 | 02:52

    SUSSEX COUNTY—People concerned about the loss of open space to development will have a chance to make their voices heard come November. On election day, Nov. 8, county voters will be asked to support a public question that would set aside funding for the county to step in and purchase farmland that could otherwise be lost to eventual development. At the same time, the property owner would still retain ownership rights and even have the right to resell his property — but with the stipulation that the property be used only for a "viable agricultural occupation." By buying the development rights and not the land itself, the program would leave farmers free to continue to work the land while helping to preserve the county's focus on agriculture and tourism for the future, county officials said. If approved, the referendum would cost homeowners approximately 1.5 cents per $100 of assessed value, or about $15 dollars a year for a home assessed at $100,000. The levy would yield about $2.25 million a year. The county feels it is a relatively small price to pay, considering that farmland lost to development usually results in higher school and municipal taxes. "The reason it's a win-win situation is because the property continues to pay taxes, and that property doesn't put a burden on the services the municipality has to provide," said county freeholder chairman Glen Vetrano. "It's a state and county program. He (farmer) can continue to farm it or sell it to another buyer, but the land is restricted in perpetuity for agriculture. It can never be used for anything other than agricultural uses." In 2000, voters approved a similar referendum that runs in conjunction with state regulations. It is more restrictive because if farmland becomes available outside the state's annual funding cycle, the opportunity to buy the property's development rights may be lost, county officials said. "There's existing programs for agriculture and open space preservation," said Donna Traylor, Sussex County's director of conservation and farmland preservation. "(But) this new funding will allow the county to be a little more independent. Depending on where you are in the cycle, this new funding will allow us to move more quickly." Under the current plan, the state would certify the property value after two independent appraisals done earlier, resulting in the state itself making an offer to the property owner. The new referendum would effectively permit the county to move on its own—within state guidelines—and buy the land, later approaching the state to try and recoup some of the money, Traylor said. Even if the state does not provide any reimbursement, however, land that could have been lost to a developer is still preserved, county officials emphasized. "In the worst case scenario of no state reimbursement, it still results in a best case scenario in terms of farmland preservation," Traylor said. "This will allow us again to be more proactive." "We need to make farming a viable occupation, a viable career so that younger people will want to farm," Vetrano said. "They need to diversify, and they have found that agri-tourism is a way of attracting visitors. This will be open-ended for whatever (land) has the immediate threat to development. "This is all predicated on whether the public supports it," Vetrano added. "They will have the ultimate decision on whether it passes or fails, and then we (could) use those dollars accordingly." County officials added that while the year-old Highlands Preservation Act will save land within certain areas, developers may target land that falls outside that program's jurisdiction. The Highlands area extends from about the center of the county to its eastern border. The western half of the county, including Wantage and Lafayette, is not in the Highlands preservation district. "This is a quality-of-life issue," Traylor concluded. "Whether you're a county native or you've just moved into the area, you're here for a reason. You're enjoying everything Sussex County can offer in terms of agriculture and open space. So this is important."