Sunday, January 05, 2014

Farmland Preservation Activists Call Thursday Meeting To Prepare For Oconee County SPLOST Referendum

TDR On Agenda Too

Oconee County farmland activist Russ Page and Laura Hall from the Athens Land Trust have called a meeting for Thursday to push for inclusion of funding for farmland protection in the county’s 2015 Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax.

The meeting comes before two oportunities—on Jan. 13 and Feb. 10—for citizens to indicate what projects they want to have included in the language for the next SPLOST referendum, scheduled to be held May 20 of this year.

Those meetings will start at 6 p.m. at the Civic Center on Hog Mountain Road.

Page At Meeting 10/17/2013

Following those sessions, the Oconee County Board of Commissioners will have to sort through citizen initiatives as well as $137 million in requests already put forward by county department heads and elected officials.

The Commissioners are scheduled to vote on March 4 to put the tax on the ballot and to designate projects to be funded should voters approve the tax in May. The total project list is likely to be for less than $40 million.

The meeting called by Page and Hall will start at 7 p.m. at the Oconee County Library on Experiment Station Road in Watkinsville.

Ballot Language

The ballot language must specify projects to be funded by the 1 percent sales tax, should it be approved by voters.

The current SPLOST includes $0.5 million for farmland protection, and the meeting on Jan. 9 will include information on how that money has been spent and on what could be done if funding for farmland protection is included in the next tax.

The current $40.4 million SPLOST, approved by voters in March of 2009, included the farmland funding after Page persuaded Commissioners that it was the most effective way to continue funding of the county’s farmland program, which began in 2003.

County officials and elected leaders made their pitch to the Commissioners for inclusion of their projects in that SPLOST referendum before citizens were given a chance to express their desires, as is the case again this year.

Historic Preservation Requested

Page asked the Commissioners last time around for funding for historical preservation in addition to the funding for farmland protection.

The Commissions accepted both ideas, but they merged the historical preservation funding into the request from the county’s Department of Parks and Recreation, for a total of $1.1 million.

Less than $6,000 of that has been spent on historic projects so far. The current SPLOST expires at the end of 2015.

The funding for farmland protection survived as a distinct project—the only citizen proposal to make it intact into SPLOST 2009 ballot language.

Program Success

Since 2003, the county has protected 485 acres on five different farms through its farmland protection program.

The county has done this by spending $670,675 of its own money and obtaining $3.9 million in federal and other funding to purchase easements on the farms, protecting them from development in perpetuity, according to a flier that Page and Hall produced in announcing the Thursday meeting.

The Athens Land Trust holds the easements and has the obligation to enforce them.

The Oconee County program has been considered a model by the Natural Resources Conservation Service, which provides the federal funding.

Despite that, the county has changed how the program is administered, taking responsibility away from a citizen committee that managed it and turning it over to a committee appointed by the Commissioners themselves.

Farmington Meetings

At a townhall meeting the Commissioners held in Farmington in October, each Commissioner was asked by former Commissioner Chuck Horton to indicate priorities for the upcoming SPLOST.

None of the five mentioned farmland protection. (A video of the responses is here.)

Commissioners John Daniell and Jim Luke have been particularly critical of the program in the past.

Daniell was the most outspoken advocate for the Commission taking responsibility for administration of the program.

Luke has indicted at several BOC meetings that he feels the money should be used for parkland and green space purchase in the north of the county rather than for protection of farms in the county’s south.

Flier For Thursday Meeting

Oconee County has some of the best farmland soils in the country, Page and Hall state in the flier for the Thursday meeting, and agriculture is still a large part of the county’s economy, they note.

“Protecting farmland maintains the rural character of Oconee County, which is a big part of why people move here,” the flier states.

Farms pay more in taxes than they require in government services, according to the flier.

In addition to asking people to attend the meeting to learn more about farmland protection and SPLOST, Page has organized an online petition on farmland protection funding.

TDR Program

The petition mentions both the SPLOST initiative for farmland protection and a Transfer of Development Rights (TDR) program.

Page told me in an email message last week that the meeting on Thursday will discuss a possible TDR program for the county as well as the SPLOST funding.

Page has long been an advocate of such a TDR program, which would include designation of areas of the county for preservation as well as areas for development.

Page wrote last week that a TDR program could be another way of providing funding of the county’s farmland protection program.

Page has created a video explaining TDR programs in preparation for the meeting on Thursday.

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