Farmers Bewildered By Land Preservation Program

Refusal, Then Devaluation, Of 3 Parcels Embitters Growers

October 23, 1991|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,Staff writer

Two Glenwood property owners seeking admission to the county's successful agricultural land preservation program are confused about wherethe program is headed.

Several months ago, Daryl C. Stewart and her next-door neighbors, John W. and Dorothy C. Sundstrom, thought they were prime candidates to join the program.

Now, they wonder if the county is trying to squeeze them out and is sending a message that small land owners need not apply.

"They're not taking into consideration that to be viable, a farm doesn't need 100 acres," said Stewart's daughter Kim, 27, who boards and trainsshow horses on the family tract. "It seems a little narrow-minded."

Although neither the 38-acre Stewart farm nor the 43-acre Sundstrom farm meets the 50-acre minimum required for admission to the program, they joined another neighbor, Warren H. Boyer, in seeking to bringto the program a combined 109 acres at Burntwoods Road and Route 97.

Similar submissions had been accepted in the past, and based on the way the preservation board was evaluating properties, the three property owners figured their midrange land would command a price of about $5,000 an acre for easement rights.

The board planned to hold a public hearing on the Boyer-Stewart-Sundstrom submission last month. Instead, the board and the property owners were told the night of the hearing that the county considered the proposal invalid.

The problem, the county said, was that while the parcels were contiguous toone another, they were not contiguous to any other parcel already inthe program.

After meeting with the property owners and the chairman of the preservation board, the county relented, saying the petition was valid and could be accepted so long as all three owners agreedto accept the same price and enter the program simultaneously.

The three reapplied, but on the day of the Oct. 14 public hearing they were told that the offer for their easement rights would probably be far less than they had been told earlier. The best they could hope for, they were told, was $1,000 to $2,500 an acre.

Boyer dropped out.

"I'm walking around in a state of confusion," he said. "The offer was much lower than anticipated, and you have to wait 30 years for the money. I'm waiting to see the offers" made to Stewart and Sundstrom.

The program is financed by real estate transfer taxes amounting to about $3.3 million annually. Participants receive a lump sum payment at the end of 30 years and are paid tax-free interest twice a year on the principal until then. As of June 30, the county had a $13.4million surplus with which to pay for the program.

The program's goal is to buy easements on 30,000 acres. Before the program was restructured in 1989, 7,768 acres were preserved. In the more than two years since, 3,045 more acres have been added, with another 3,784 awaiting admission. Depending upon the size and value of the land, easement prices have run from $1,000 to $6,500 an acre.

Until June, the program was run by the county planning and zoning department. Since then, it has come under the supervision of economic coordinator Dyan Brasington. Many say the emphasis of the program has changed since then.

While declaring the Boyer-Stewart-Sunderland submission invalid in September, Brasington told the board the county would look to savemost of its remaining money to buy easements on larger parcels. A month later, she led the economic development advisory board on a tour of four large farms typical of the type she says she hopes to bring into the program.

County planning Director Joseph W. Rutter Jr. denies there is any attempt to change the program dramatically. It has always be the county's intention to preserve large blocks of contiguous farmland, he said.

Rutter called the county's initial handling of the Boyer-Stewart-Sundstrom proposal "an embarrassment."

What the county was attempting to say, he said, was that because all three properties were less than 50 acres, everything depended on Daryl and Kim Stewart, because their land was located between the Boyer and Sundstrom holdings. If the Stewarts pulled out, the other two offerings would be less than 50 acres and therefore could not come into the program.

Holdings of 20 acres or more can be preserved if they are contiguous to parcels already in the program.

What has changed since Brasington took over administration of the program, Rutter said, is that oversight has been moved to economic development. That change enables the planning and zoning department to function as a "critical evaluator" of properties seeking to come into the program, he said.

For the planning department to both market the program and evaluate parcels submitted for easements -- as was done in the past -- was "awkward," Rutter said.

Kim Stewart says she doesn't know why there isan emphasis on large tracts. "We were hoping the program would help us stay a farm and not force us to sell out to development," she said. But unless things change, "it doesn't look like that's going to happen now."

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