The Oconee County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday night is scheduled to remove key responsibility for the county’s farmland protection program from a citizen committee that initiated the program in 1998 and has controlled the program since.
Instead, the Commissioners are set to shift responsibility for selection of farms for the program to a committee they appoint and control.
Because of their stated unhappiness with the existing selection process, the Commissioners passed up the near certainty of receiving $175,000 in federal funding and the opportunity to protect a farm in the county in the current fiscal cycle.
The next opportunity the county will have for these federal funds will come in the next federal fiscal year, which starts on Oct. 1. Those funds will be available only if Congress agrees on a farm bill that includes funding for the federal Farm and Ranchlands Protection Program (FRPP) or a similar federal initiative.
Since 2003, Oconee County has been a leader in the state in farmland protection, placing permanent conservation easements on 485 acres of farmland in the county, preventing it, in perpetuity, from being developed.
Only $507,800 of the $2,929,510 spent on the program has been covered by local tax money, with the federal government contributing the largest share of funding, $1,947,240. The landowners also contributed to the program, and the total value of easements is about $3.5 million.
Tuesday Night Agenda
Commissioner Mark Saxon told me in a telephone conversation on Wednesday that the Commissioners have agreed to create their own selection committee of five persons “to actually select the farms” that will be put forward for funding as part of the FRPP in the future.
FRPP provides matching funds to help purchase development rights to keep productive farm and ranchland in agricultural uses.
|Powers Farm Protected|
The Oconee County selection committee will use the federal program criteria, which is what was true in the past.
Saxon said each Commissioner “came up with a name of a citizen” for the committee and that the names will be announced on Tuesday night.
The appointment of the committee is the 10th item on a 24-item agenda for the BOC meeting, which is scheduled to start at 7 p.m. at the courthouse in Watkinsville.
Background On Controversy
Appointment of the selection committee is the outgrowth of BOC concerns with its farmland protection program that surfaced at its meeting on Oct. 11, 2011.
Russ Page, representing the citizen group Oconee Partnership for Farmland Protection, and Laura Hall, conservation director at the Athens Land Trust, asked the BOC to confirm submission of a farm for the 2012 FRPP cycle, but the Board could not agree on a selection.
At the Dec. 6 meeting the BOC did approve $111,000 as its portion of purchase price of the easement for the Powers farm on Rose Creek Drive.
The issue came up again at the BOC’s “visioning session” on Jan. 24 of this year.
Commissioners John Daniell and Jim Luke were most outspoken.
Luke expressed an interest in using the county money for something other than purchasing easements on farms, and Daniell said he didn’t like having a committee not controlled by the BOC making the selection of the farm.
Daniell and others called for more transparency in the selection process.
Meetings By Invitation
Members of the BOC have convened at least two meetings by invitation only to discuss the future of the farmland protection program since the January session.
One was after the Board took up farmland protection again at its regular March 5 meeting.
According to the minutes of the March 5 meeting, the BOC agreed that “Chairman Davis and Commissioner Saxon will develop guidelines for the structure of the committee, policies, and goals. They will report to the Board at the April 23, 2013 meeting.”
At 9 a.m. on April 18, Davis assembled a group in the government annex building in Watkinsville. That date and time were given me by Russ Page, who said he was there, having been invited by Davis.
At the regular BOC meeting on April 23, Davis also made reference to a meeting, which he said took place “several weeks ago.”
Davis said he wanted to read into the record the list of persons who attended, and he did so.
He started with himself and Commissioner Mark Saxon.
Others, according to Davis, were Hall, Page, Sharon Holbrooks from U.S.D.A., Nancy Stangle from the Land Trust, Thomas Verner, county representative of the U.S.D.A. Farm Service Agency, Gerald Grace, U.S.D.A. NRCS agent, Henry Hibbs, retired University of Georgia extension agent, Monte Stephens, current U.G.A. extension agent, Ricky House Sr., and Sam Mitchell.
Both House and Mitchell are farmers whose have participated in the FRPP program.
Page gave me an identical list, from his memory, except that he included Jose Pagan, also with NRCS.
April 23 Meeting
The Board of Commissioners devoted 70 minutes to the county’s farmland protection program at its April 23 meeting.
Holbrooks, easement specialist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, gave a PowerPoint presentation on FRPP and told the Commissioners that Oconee County was the only county in the state currently competing for program funds.
She and County Attorney Daniel Haygood told the group that the easements placed on the farms guaranteed that the farms cannot be developed.
Holbrooks also told the Board that funds were available to the county in the current 2013 federal fiscal year budget, which expires on Sept. 30. She said she wants to keep the program running.
Holbrooks and Nancy Stangle, emerita director of the Athens Land Trust, which has partnered with the county in the past, stressed that the selection of farms for the programs is complex and has been carefully vetted in the past and that the BOC has been informed and involved in the past.
The nearly five-minute long video above contains key points of that lengthy meeting.
2013 Request Not Made
Holbrooks, in response to a question from Commissioner Jim Luke, told the BOC that she expected the federal government would be able to provide the same amount of money to the county from the 2013 Fiscal Year budget–$175,000--as had been the case in 2012.
She said spending from one year usually sets the precedence for spending in the following year.
She also told the BOC it had to act quickly if it wanted to get funding from that 2013 budget. She said her full budget for the program was $306,000.
No one responded to Holbooks’ comments about 2013 funding, and there has been no mention of a 2013 submission by the county at any of the public BOC meetings since.
“Oconee County opted not to put a farm forward” for 2013 funding, Holbrooks told me in a telephone conversation on Wednesday.
Holbrooks said she “already sent the funds back” to Washington. “I don’t have any money in the program any more.”
May 22 Meeting
At the end of the April 23 meeting , Davis said he wanted to have another meeting of himself, Commissioner Saxon, and others to discuss criteria the county could use to evaluate property for the FRPP designation.
What followed was at least one additional invitation-only meeting on May 22.
Davis produced notes from the meeting, which also was held at the Government Annex Building.
I was given those notes this past week by County Administrative Officer Jeff Benko in response to my question about the meetings.
The same group of people attended the second meeting as the first, according to Davis' notes, except that Page and Hall were missing
Page told me he was out of town in May.
According to the minutes of the May 22 meeting produced by Davis, the group discussed ranking factors for the selection of property, a timetable for future nomination of those properties, and membership on the ranking committee.
Saxon reported to the BOC at its meeting on June 4, saying that the group agreed that the criteria that have been used in the past–based on the federal standards–were the ones that should be used in the future.
The schedule the group adopted calls for acceptance of applications from landowners on July 1 of each year. Since there is no farm bill and the county opted not to use money from last year, it isn’t clear when the county will next solicit farms.
At present, the House and Senate have passed versions of the farm bill, but they are different from each other in significant ways and there is no evidence yet of the grounds for compromise.
Davis acknowledged that at the meeting on June 4.
Holbrooks was optimistic when I spoke with her that the FRPP program, in some form, will continue into the future. It is a popular program across the country, she said.
Given that Oconee County is the only county in the state that has sought funds in recent years, she said, she doesn’t think the unwillingness of the county to seek 2013 funds will be much of an issue.
“I don’t think it will affect the future of the program for the county too much,” she said. “I don’t think missing a year is going to be too bad.”
Stangle told me that the Land Trust had been prepared to go forward with an application and believed the county could have submitted a fundable proposal had the county chosen to do so.
History Of Program
Page told me last week that he and nine others formed the Partnership For Farmland Protection in 1998 out a concern for the loss of farmland in the county.
The other nine people worked for U.S.D.A or were involved in farming issues in the county, he said.
People who have been involved in the Partnership over the years include many of those involved in the meetings Davis convened.
Page listed Hall, Stangle, Hibbs, Grace, Pagan and Verner as persons who have been on the Partnership.
Page said Partnership meetings were advertised and open to the public and that the group solicited farmers to make application.
Page said, and Commissioner Margaret Hale confirmed in her comments at the meeting on April 23, the Partnership always brought the selected farm to the BOC before it was sent forward for competition.
Development Rights Recognized
Page said the Partnership explored several ways to protect farmland and settled on the purchase of development rights as the best strategy for Oconee County.
The FRPP begins with the recognition that the farming landowner has the right to take the land out of farming and develop it or sell it to someone else who wants to develop it.
The program works by compensating the landowner for giving up the right, in perpetuity, to develop the land. The landowner gives up the development right through the placement of a legal easement on the land precluding development in the future.
The FRPP provides compensation for the easement through a formula in which the federal government provides funds on the condition that a local entity also provides funds and that the landowner surrender some of the value without compensation.
Easement Held By Entity
The easement has to be held and monitored by a separate entity, and the Partnership selected the Athens Land Trust for that role. The Trust places the easement on the deed for the property with the Clerk of Courts for Oconee County and assumes the responsibility to defend the easement in the future.
As Haygood and Holbrooks explained at the April 23 meeting, the easement runs with the land, meaning that any purchaser of the land makes that purchase with the understanding that the easement exists and is a part of the land. The new owner must respect the easement and cannot develop the land in the future.
Because the Trust has the obligation to defend the easement, it requires the landowner to make some donation to it, consistent with IRS requirements for the Trust, Stangle told me when I talked with her on Thursday.
Athens Land Trust is a private, non-profit 501(c)(3) corporation established in 1994 with the goals of land preservation, affordable, energy efficient housing, and neighborhood revitalization. Its headquarters are at 685 North Pope Street in Athens.
Even though Oconee County could use its own criteria for selecting land for protection, it must meet the FRPP standards if it hopes to get federal funding to supplement its own investment.
The FRPP criteria includes the value of the land for farming, soil types, current land uses, proximity to other protected land, and development pressure. The more pressure there is for development, the higher the score for the land, Stangle said.
The determination of the value of the land for development is done by professional appraisers, as Holbrooks told the Commissioners in her presentation.
The farming landowner continues to own the land after the easement is placed on it and continues to pay taxes on the land as farm property.
Funding For Farmland
Page told me that in 2003 he talked with state officials, who told him that the county could use allocated dollars from the Greenspace Fund for farmland protection. The county used those monies for the first of two purchases it made of the Powers farm.
On March 1, 2005, the BOC voted unanimously to allocated $75,000 from the general fund for the program. Easements on farms were purchased with general fund monies in 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2008.
When Commissioners were considering projects for the 2009 Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax, Page was the only citizen to come forward with a concrete project.
The BOC subsequently included “farmland protection” on the SPLOST ballot, and voters approved $500,000 in funding for that activity for the six years starting in 2010.
The most recent two farms funded, in 2011 and again this year, obtained their county funds from SPLOST. And the BOC is scheduled on Tuesday to start its planning for the next SPLOST, likely to be on the ballot in 2015.
“He has worked tirelessly on this project,” Stangle said of Page when I talked with her by telephone on Friday afternoon. “He has made every effort to keep this going over the years.”
Page said on Thursday that he had not been asked by any of the five Commissioners if he would be willing to serve on the new selection committee.
The seven pieces of land protected by the county are listed in the chart below. (Click on it to enlarge it.)
|Oconee Farmland Protected|
The Land Trust took easements on the Powers farm in 2003 and again in 2011 because the county and federal government did not have the financial resources in either year to purchase the tracts together, Stangle said.
The same was true for the House tracts, for which easements were granted in 2005 and 2007.
In both cases, she said, it might be possible to place easements on additional land if funding is available.
The Trust was able to protect 188 acres on the Mitchell Farm because of the state funding then available through the state land conservation program.
The U.S.D.A. Natural Resources Conservation Service specifically credits the Oconee County Partnership for Farmland Protection for its role in preserving the Powers Farm.
On its web site, the NRCS calls the 2003 purchase of the development rights for the 58-acre “heart of the farm” a “Conservation Success Story” for Oconee County.
Frances and Will Powers have “agreed to carry on the agricultural heritage of their ancestors and have ensured that the agricultural benefits will be available to residents of Oconee County for generations to come,” the NRCS states.
The sister and brother have a booth at the Oconee Farmers Market on most Tuesdays and Saturdays. (Pictured above is Dana Bradford, who works on the farm.)
Page and Debbie Beese, also involved in Oconee Partnership for Farmland Protection, started the Oconee Farmers Market in 2004.