It looks like Northampton County won't have to sell the farm in order to preserve farmland.
Last year, Farmland Preservation Administrator Maria Bentzoni sounded the alarm when she feared the county was underfunding the program in the 2017 budget. She received 55 inquiries from interested property owners, which would result in a significant boost in participating farms if even half of them followed through and applied.
County Executive John Brown budgeted $500,000 for the program. If the bumper crop of applicants materialized, it would leave the county with a backlog of farms for the first time in five years, Bentzoni said.
But Bentzoni said Wednesday those concerns haven't materialized. Despite the unusually high number of inquiries, just 18 property owners applied for preservation, she said. Of those, only 14 will be eligible for the program. Even those 14 may not all be preserved if their owners decide to pull out of the program over the next year or so.
"We should have enough funds to preserve the list as it was approved," Bentzoni said. She could not explain why so few property owners followed through with applying to the program.
The $500,000 Brown budgeted is the most he's committed to farmland preservation in his three years in office, but it's only half what the program received annually under his predecessor, John Stoffa. Brown argued the program had been overfunded for years, locking up money better usedto address failing infrastructure or other needs. The program had so much cash on hand in 2016 that it didn't require additional funds in last year's budget.
Brown said Thursday the number of farms seeking preservation has trended down for years, and the county should adjust as needed. If a sudden burst of applicants catches the county by surprise, he said he would increase funding levels the next year to compensate.
"It [a wait list] could happen, but we're going to do the best we can to fund the program at the demand that's there," he said.
County Councilmen Matt Dietz, Hayden Phillips and Robert Werner attempted to raise another $250,000 for the program during the budget process, but they said Brown threatened to veto any such move. They did not introduce amendments to the program's budget.
"I think this bolsters John Brown's contention," Phillips said. "The problem wasn't so much a lack of funding but a lack of land, a lack of inventory."
The process of preserving the farms by purchasing their development rights will last another 18 months to two years. The next step will be assessing the value of the land, Bentzoni said. The county will also submit its funding and the reports on the properties to the state in an effort to receive additional state funding.
Brown financed the farmland preservation program in 2017 with revenue from the Sands Casino Resort Bethlehem.
Northampton County has enough money for farmland preservation
The fear: The $500,000 Northampton County budgeted for farmland preservation in 2017 was too little given early inquiries from 55 property owners.
The result: Eighteen of those 55 applied for preservation, and 14 will be eligible — meaning there's enough money to cover demand.
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