Easement could hurt farmer’s ability to borrow

PHOTO/JENNIFER MARANGOS/ About 100 people from business, government and the community attended the Save It Or Pave It event program recently at Northampton Community College’s Fowler Center in Bethlehem.

When talking about preserving farmland, it’s also critical to think about preserving farms.

When talking about preserving farmland, it’s also critical to think about preserving farms.

That’s the message that Gary Smith, president and CEO of the Chester County Economic Development Council, recently delivered to 100 people representing businesses, governments and communities in Lehigh and Northampton counties at a panel discussion at Northampton Community College’s Fowler Center in Bethlehem and hosted by Renew Lehigh Valley. RenewLV is an advocacy organization dedicated to farmland preservation, food sustainability and smart transportation.

“Farmers are running businesses,” said Smith, who runs his family’s dairy farm in addition to helming the development council. “At the end of the day, we have bills to pay and when expenses exceed income, we go out of business.”

Titled “Save It Or Pave It,” the program was one in a series of public engagement events that RenewLV has been hosting to get community members thinking about and talking about farmland preservation and smart growth, according to Joyce Marin, its executive director.

“We are commodity producers, and we have no idea what value will be,” Smith said. “Who can live on a 30 percent pay cut? Taxes go up. Other input costs go up. All these ingredients are a burden to those farmers.

“Once you put your farm into agricultural easement, the value goes down. You can no longer get fair market value [for the land].”

Most Pennsylvania counties, including Lehigh and Northampton, participate in the agricultural conservation easement program. Essentially, the county buys the development rights to the land, giving the farmer money in return for placing a deed restriction on the property so that it is never developed.

Smith described the fictional scenario where a farmer’s son or daughter goes off to college and returns home with great ideas about growing the family business.

The family goes to the bank to get a loan to help fund the expansion – whether it be to buy more land, cows or equipment. But since there is a farmland preservation easement on the property, it can’t get the needed funds.

“The problem we have is the banker looks at it as a special-use property and thinks, if I need to foreclose, it can’t be modified for a use other than it is,” Smith said.

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