HARRISBURG, Pa. - Long criticized for failing to slow down suburban sprawl, Pennsylvania now has something to brag about: national recognition of its farmland-preservation program.
The state received an achievement award last week from American Farmland Trust, a nonprofit farmland-conservation group, for protecting more farmland than any other state. Since its creation in 1989, Pennsylvania's publicly funded Farmland Preservation Program has protected more than 1,400 farms and 180,000 acres of farmland from development.
Pennsylvania now outranks Maryland, the previous leader in farmland preservation. Maryland - a national model in fighting sprawl, with one of the oldest farm-preservation programs in the country - holds 1,158 easements on 167,767 acres.
Last year in Pennsylvania, a record 283 farms totaling 33,000 acres were preserved through the purchase of development rights.
Still, in a region where the landscape is among the most threatened, environmentalists say there is more work to be done. They point out that Pennsylvania ranks fifth among states in the amount of land lost to development. Between 1992 and 1997, 545,000 acres of open space were developed, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Lancaster County has spent two years on the National Trust for Historic Preservation's list of America's Most Endangered Historic Places, and counties surrounding Philadelphia have been losing farmland at a pace the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission characterizes as "an acre an hour."
"Farmland preservation is not going to stop sprawl from devouring open space, because not all open space is farmland," said John Hanger, president and chief executive officer of Citizens for Pennsylvania's Future, an environmental advocacy group.
But, calling its farmland preservation a "tangible victory" in the war against sprawl, Ralph Grossi, president of American Farmland Trust, said Pennsylvania's response was unprecedented.
"It has increased its investment in farmland protection, developed new tools for local governments, and recognized the tremendous social, environmental and economic contributions that agriculture makes to our communities," he said.
Under the farmland-preservation program, Pennsylvania farmers are paid an average of $2,000 per acre for the development rights.
The figure is higher in areas where land is more valuable. In parts of fast-growing Chester and Montgomery counties in the eastern part of the state, farmers are paid up to $15,000 an acre. The farmland-preservation program, which totaled $230 million between 1995 and 2000, is supported by state and county and, in some cases, township funds.
Hanger and others said that only broad planning strategies, involving tax policies, urban growth, and hazardous-waste cleanup, will stop sprawl.
In addition, the farmland-preservation program is unable to buy development rights on all the farmland available. There are 1,500 farmers on the waiting list to participate in the program, state officials say.
`Still a backlog'
"There is still a backlog of farmers wanting land preserved," Hanger said. "The money is not adequate to purchase all the land that could be preserved."
The preservation program last year received a special funding allocation of $100 million from the state, spread over five years, to help reduce the backlog, said Ray Pickering, director of the Bureau of Farmland Preservation.
Word of Pennsylvania's farmland-preservation initiative is spreading, Pickering said.
His agency has been host to busloads of planners and other officials from states considering similar programs.
"Farmland preservation is an efficient way to spend tax dollars," Grossi said. "The money is reinvested in the community to improve and upgrade farms. It's win-win all around."