Oconee County’s Farmland Preservation Committee voted earlier this month to ask the Board of Commissioners to increase funding for protection of farmland in the county in the 2021 Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax referendum planned for the November Ballot.
In both the 2009 and current 2015 SPLOST, $500,000 is set aside for the purchase of conservation easements on farmland in the county that protect the land from future development.
The Farmland Preservation Committee voted to ask that the amount in the 2021 SPLOST be $120,000 annually, or $720,000 across the six years of the voter-approved 1 percent sales tax.
The increase in the funding reflects the increased value of land in the county, Thomas Verner, chair of the Preservation Committee, said at the meeting. Farmland is being assessed at between $15,000 and $20,000 per acre, the Committee was told, with the high end of that range becoming more common.
The goal of the Committee, Verner said, should be to have money to contribute to the purchase of the easement on at least one farm in each of the six years of the SPLOST.
Verner said people in the county have supported inclusion of farmland preservation in the past to maintain the county’s “agricultural and pastoral setting.”
History of Program
Both Verner and Krisztian Varsa, conservation director at the Athens Land Trust, told the Committee members at the Feb. 3 meeting that the county has gained statewide and national notoriety for its efforts to protect farmland from development.
The Athens Land Trust holds the conservation easements on the land the county has protected through this program.
Beginning in 2004, landowners in Oconee County have protected from development a total of 746 acres through the farmland program, according to records maintained by Varsa.
Those acres were protected through 12 individual projects and by nine different Oconee County farm families, Varsa said.
“We anticipate closing on an additional 40 acres through the program in the first half of 2020,” Varsa said.
Varsa told the Committee that a survey conducted as part of the program in the past showed that people in the county want to protect the rural landscape.
“This is why we live in Oconee County,” Varsa reported that survey respondents had said. “This is what it’s about.”
How It Works
Primary funding for the farmland preservation program in the county comes from the United States Department of Agriculture and its Agricultural Conservation Easement Program.
The federal government contributes half of the cost of the easement.
In the past, the county has contributed 25 percent, and the farmer has donated 25 percent.
The federal government no longer requires a local match, Varsa told the Committee, and the farms most recently selected for preservation in Oconee County will not receive local funding because the 2015 SPLOST allocation has been exhausted.
The farmer has to make up the difference through her or his donation of the land value.
“We’re hoping to keep Farmland Preservation on SPLOST in the county,” Verner told the Committee at the beginning of the meeting. “And that’s kind of why we are here today.”
Though a local match is no longer required, both Verner and Varsa said, that local match makes it more likely that the farms nominated by the county will receive the federal funds.
“I think it is something that the people in the county have apparently wanted,” Verner said. “That’s why a lot of people come to Oconee County—is because they like the agricultural and pastoral setting.”
The video below is of the Feb. 3 meeting of the Farmland Preservation Committee at the Government Annex on SR 15 southwest of Watkinsville.
Committee members are appointed by the Board of Commissioners.
Seated around the table in the video below, left to right, are Del Finco, Michael Ransom, Verner, Varsa, and Carole Ludwig. Committee member Thad Padgett did not attend.
Verner began SPLOST discussion at 11:29 in the video.
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