They’re not making any more of it, so Solebury Township wants to ensure its remaining open space stays open.
To that end, the board of supervisors held a Land Preservation Forum on March 12 that drew about 50 people to hear local and county experts on saving open space acreage from development.
The panel included Dave Johnson, executive director of the Land Trust of Bucks County; Kris Kern, director of resource protection for the Heritage Conservancy; Rich Harvey, Bucks County Agricultural Preservation Program administrator; Terry Clemons of Clemons Richter & Reiss PC, special counsel to Solebury on open space issues; and Phil Johnson, chair of the Solebury Land Preservation Committee.
Supervisor Chair Mark Baum Baicker, who led the session, noted township residents have passed four preservation referendums (in 1996, 1999, 2002, 2005) totaling $44 million which has allowed for the preservation of 86 properties.
Solebury has preserved 38 percent of its acreage and has $3.4 million left for purchases without further borrowing, he said.
“We’ve picked the low-hanging fruit,” said Supervisor Kevin Morrissey, from the audience, referring to capturing larger estates. But there are still owners of smaller parcels to be sought out, he added.
“We need referrals,” said attorney Clemons. “We need people who know people – people who go to parties. We need to convince owners to join in.”
Clemons said people should be informed about the benefits of putting their land in preservation agreements, and offered the specter of former farmland that is now called Levittown.
The benefits of placing land in preservation agreements, Clemons said, include:
– the property will be preserved as it is today;
– the owner retains ownership and knows it will not be developed;
– there is no realty transfer tax on it in Pennsylvania;
– the real estate millage will not increase on the property in the future.
Phil Johnson said his township Land Preservation Committee considers many categories of land use when referring parcels to the Solebury Board of Supervisors for preservation approval.
This can include agriculture, rural character, scenic views, public education benefits, or an ecological system, he said.
The process begins with writing a letter to Jean Weiss, township land preservation administrator, describing the land, he said. After that there will be an evaluation of the property, easement discussion, an appraisal, and an offer. The land will also be checked annually to see there are no violations of the easement agreement.
David Johnson of the Land Trust of Bucks County listed preservation benefits for health and recreation, preservation of natural resources, tax relief, and fewer school-age children resulting in fewer new schools.
Rich Harvey said selling a conservation easement can permanently protect a family farm from being lost to future non-agricultural development. The easement is a legal restriction on land development that limits future uses of the land to agricultural purposes.
Landowners can receive cash for some of the equity tied up in their land and still keep ownership of the land, he explained. Conservation easements can be used for estate planning tools to help farmers successfully pass on the farm to the next generation.
Minimum requirements for inclusion in an agricultural easement include at least 50 acres (unless it is adjacent to another preserved farm or preserved parkland), and contain at least 50 percent in agricultural production.
Easement values, Harvey said, range from $10,000 an acre to $32,000 an acre. The county has a $12,000 per acre cap, but many municipalities contribute funding if the value is more than that. The average price is $9,100 per acre.
The county accepts agricultural easement applications once a year in January and currently has 40 farms on its list, Harvey said. To date, he added, it has preserved 17,406 acres on 220 farms in the county.