Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Oconee County Commissioners Accept Committee Ranking Of Farms for Protection

Dispute GDOT Application

The Oconee County Board of Commissioners last night accepted a ranking of six farms under consideration for the county’s farmland protection program that put the 75-acre farm of Carole Ludwig, 1510 Old Farmington Road in the south of the county, at the top of the list.

In accepting the recommendation of its review committee, the Commissioners gave themselves considerable leeway to select another of the farms on the list.

The county now will begin discussions with the Athens Land Trust about purchasing a conservation easement on the Ludwig farm in the hopes of obtaining federal funding to make the purchase possible.

If the negotiations with Ludwig are unsuccessful, BOC Chairman Melvin Davis told the BOC last night, the county can go to another of the farms on the list.

GDOT Funding Request

The Commissioners spent only 20 minutes with the farmland program before turning to another issue added to the agenda at the beginning of the meeting at the request of Commissioner John Daniell.

Davis had sidestepped the recommendation of county Public Works Director Emil Beshara that the county nominate 5.3 miles of Salem Road running from Farmington to the Greene County line for repaving under a state program that will provide $417,000 in funding.

Davis admitted that he had drafted a letter to GDOT nominating for repaving 2.3 miles of Atlanta Highway, running from the Clarke County line to the Barrow County line, but he said he also included Salem Road for possible funding.

Davis contended that it didn’t matter what the county proposed it could do with the money whatever it wanted once the state transfers the funds.

Beshara disagreed, saying that the county designation mattered and that, in his opinion, the higher priority was Salem Road.

After 40 minutes, including rather pointed back-and-forths between Davis and Daniell, and between Davis and Commissioner Margaret Hale, Davis agreed to the Salem Road designation as the top priority.

Commissioner Hale, who lives on Salem Road, said she was responding to the recommendation of Beshara.

Commissioners Jim Luke and Mark Saxon were silent through the discussion.

Farmland Committee Report

The selection of the Ludwig farm was the first by the Board of Commissioners since it replaced in August a citizen-initiated committee called the Oconee Partnership for Farmland Protection with a review committee hand-picked by the five commissioners.

Ranking Committee Chairman Henry Hibbs told the Commissioners that he and the other four Committee members had met on Nov. 21 and Dec. 10 to review the six applications for farmland protection and had visited each of those farms in the first week of December.

He said the rankings were very close but the Ludwig farm came to the top because it met the federal standards under the federal Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program. The county opted to use those same standards, as had the Oconee Partnership for Farmland Protection.

The Ludwig farm was on a list of 32 farms under consideration by the Oconee Partnership when the BOC replaced it as the review committee, according to Russ Page, a member of the Partnership and longtime advocate of farmland protection in the county.

Passed Up $175,000

The county passed up a near-certain $175,000 in federal funds this summer available to it through the Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program.

Commissioner John Daniell, the most outspoken critic of the Partnership, said the county should not protect any farms until it controlled the selection review process itself.

The United States Department of Agriculture has not allocated funds for the next round of competition, according to Sharon Holbrooks, conservation easement specialist with the Athens office of the National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).

NRCS is the unit of the Department of Agriculture that runs the existing Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program.

Holbrooks told me in email message yesterday afternoon that she anticipates funding for the current fiscal year at about the same level as last year, when the $175,000 was available to Oconee County.

The county pays only about a quarter of the cost of the program.

Holsbrooks said that FRPP will be funded, even without passage of the stalled farm bill, because Congress in 2012 extended the authority for FRPP until 2014.

Ranking Disclosed

Hibbs identfied the Ludwig farm as the top-rated in his report to the BOC last night, but he did not report the ranking of the other five farms.

Before the BOC voted to accept Hibbs’ ordering of the farms, Chairman Davis asked for citizen input.

I asked that the ranking be disclosed.

Hibbs listed the remaining five farms and started to provide the scores assigned to each, but Davis interrupted him and said only to disclose the ranking.

Hibbs subsequently provided me those scores.

Narrow Range Of Scores

Ludwig’s farm, 1510 Old Farmington Road (livestock), received a final score of 551.1.

BJB Rollins, 2220 Salem Road (livestock), had a score of 533.6.

W. Mark and Lisa H. Dawson, 3573 Colham Ferry Road (hay and vegetables; beef), scored 528.9.

Del Finco, 1720 Old Farmington Road (livestock), had a score of 524.5.

Kay W. House, 1800 Astondale Road (beef and quail), scored 523.3.

Violet H. Dawe, 499 Hopping Road (horse farm), scored 511.5.

The House farm was protected twice before, in 2005 and 2007, as part of the county’s farmland program, but additional acreage remains available for protection.


NOTE: I have uploaded the video of the discussion of GDOT projects to the Oconee County Observations Vimeo site.

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