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Farm Preservation Options for Landowners

Features of Government and Private Approaches in Pennsylvania

Fifty-seven Pennsylvania counties have agricultural land preservation boards that purchase agricultural conservation easements. Sixty-five private charitable organizations accept donations of conservation easements or, less commonly, purchase them. These two paths to farmland preservation differ in many ways.

In Pennsylvania, owners of farmland can permanently protect their farms with the help of private charitable land trusts or through the Agricultural Conservation Easement Purchase Program (ACEPP), jointly administered by the state and county agricultural land preservation boards. The private and public approaches both have long-standing and proven records of preserving farmland. However, each has distinctly different features. There are pros and cons associated with each alternative, and landowners will need to explore them to understand which approach will best meet their needs and goals. Some of the most successful conservation efforts involve using both your local land trust and the government program.

The questions below provide general comparisons of the alternatives. When reviewing them, keep in mind that every county and land trust is different. Some answers are the same for every county and land trust; some vary. The State/County Program descriptions address the most typical situations—where state funding will be applied to the purchase and where, even if state funding isn’t being used, the county program adheres to the state rules including using the standard state easement document. Some counties take their own path for projects that don’t involve state funding and, in these cases, the answers may vary from what is presented below. You will have to contact the individual county program to get a clear answer. Likewise, you will have to contact an individual land trust to get more precise answers to many of the questions.

How much flexibility is there in crafting the restrictions and other terms of the easement?

State/County Program: Little to none.

Land Trust: Can be tailored to the land, the landowners’ needs, and particular conservation objectives.

Can the landowner be paid for placing restrictions on the farm?

State/County Program:  Yes, if the farm scores high enough in the county’s ranking system.

Land Trusts: Usually not, but it depends on the locality and the resources available to the particular land trust.

How much is paid?

State/County Program:  Some counties pay market value or could be limited to a maximum. price/acre or a percentage of market value

Land Trusts: (See previous answer.)

How long does it take?

State/County Program: Most counties have long backlogs of qualified farms seeking to be placed under easement. The highest ranked farms are protected first and lower ranked farms may have to wait for years or decades to be protected. Once a farm ranks high enough for funding, there is a multi-month, sometimes multi-year, process of completing the transaction.

Land Trusts:  Generally a few months. The amount of time will vary depending on whether an appraisal and other preparation work are needed.

Are there federal income tax deductions available for easement donations and bargain sales?

State/County Program: The deed language required for easements purchased using state money does not conform with federal requirements for qualified conservation contributions. (If a county is not using state money, flexibility might exist to better address tax issues.)

Land Trusts:  Yes, if structured properly.

What is the purpose or objective of the conservation easement?

State/County Program:  The law establishing the program describes it as preventing development or improvement for any purpose other than agricultural production.

Land Trusts: Mutually agreed to by landowner and land trust. Protection of soil resources is a typical objective. Objectives might also include protecting scenic views, water quality, and other natural resources.

What are the restrictions on the use of the property in support of the purpose?

State/County Program: All activities and improvements on the land must be associated with agricultural production (with a few exceptions).

Land Trusts: Mutually agreed to by the landowner and land trust.

Does the easement allow natural gas drilling and infrastructure?

State/County Program:  Yes.

Land Trusts:  Depends on what is mutually agreed to by the landowner and land trust.

Does the easement allow subdivision?

State/County Program:  Rules vary by county.

Land Trusts:  Depends on what is mutually agreed to by the landowner and land trust.

Can the landowner build an additional residence on the eased land?

State/County Program:  In addition to structures existing on the land on the date the easement is granted, landowners can build one additional residential structure as the principal residence for the landowner or to house farm employees.

Land Trusts:  Depends on what is mutually agreed to by the landowner and land trust.

Does the easement allow windmills for energy production and sale?

State/County Program:  Probably not unless most of the energy is used on the farm.

Land Trusts:  Depends on what is mutually agreed to by the landowner and land trust.

Must the farmer have and implement a conservation plan?

State/County Program: Yes.

Land Trusts:  Depends on what is mutually agreed to by the landowner and land trust.

How often will the county or land trust visit the farm to ensure compliance with the conservation easement?

State/County Program:  At least once every two years (the minimum required by law).

Land Trusts:  Typically once a year (the minimum required by Land Trust Standards and Practices).

Will the county or land trust want to conserve a particular farm?

State/County Program:  The farm must be part of an Agricultural Security Area. Each county has a scoring system to rank farms for potential inclusion in the program. Highest ranked farms receive offers first.

Land Trusts:  Land trusts usually have project selection and prioritization guidelines used for considering potential conservation projects.

What if the farm has large wooded areas?

State/County Program:  Woodlands can be included. However, landowners sometimes improve their farm’s ranking by excluding woodlands from the proposed easement purchase. A county sometimes partners with a land trust—the county purchasing an easement on the actively farmed area and the landowner donating to the land trust a conservation easement on the woodland.

Land Trusts:  Land trusts work with landowners to identify the most appropriate conservation objectives for the land, whether farm, forest, or otherwise.

What are some of the rules that specifically guide the conservation process?

State/County Program:  Act 43, the Agricultural Area Security Act, as well as the associated state regulations and county programs approved by the state.

Land Trusts:  Most land trusts have voluntarily adopted Land Trust Standards and Practices, the national guidelines for ethical charitable operations. (Act 29 of 2001 provides statutory authority for conservation easements not covered by Act 43 but does not require any particular process.)

How many acres have been protected in Pennsylvania?

State/County Program:  More than 530,000 acres, greater than any other state program in the nation.

Land Trusts:  Land trusts have conserved more than 230,000 acres with conservation easements. (No data exists regarding what portion of that acreage is farmland compared to forest and other conservation lands.)

How long has this been going on?

State/County Program:  The state program was created in 1989. Lancaster County pioneered county purchases in 1983.

Land Trusts:  Land trusts first used conservation easements in southeastern Pennsylvania in the 1960s. The 1980s saw expanded use across the Commonwealth.

In what geographic areas do the boards or land trusts operate?

State/County Program:  57 counties participate in the program.

Land Trusts:  Sixty-five land trusts hold easements, some organizations focused on a single municipality, county, or watershed, some with much larger service areas.

Where can I go for more information?

State/County Program:  The Pennsylvania Bureau of Farmland Preservation (717.783.3167) and their website http://www.agriculture.pa.gov/Encourage/farmland/Pages/default.aspx. Also, many counties have websites describing their programs. Links to them can be found at http://conservationtools.org/organizations/farmland.

Land Trusts:  ConservationTools.org. Land trusts working in your area can be identified at http://conservationtools.org/organizations.

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Experts

Pennsylvania Land Trust Association
717-230-8560
Loza started Allegheny County's farmland preservation program and has been engaged in farmland preservation issues for many years.

Featured Library Items

This is a copy of Act 43, which created the Agricultural Security Area program. The document reflects all revisions to this statute, through Act 19 of 2013.
A conservation easement limits certain uses of the land in order to advance one or more conservation objectives while keeping the land in the owner’s control. It is established by mutual agreement of a landowner and a private land trust or government. (print version of ConservationTools.org guide)

Acknowledgements

Andrew M. Loza authored this guide.

Disclaimer

Nothing contained in this or any other document available at ConservationTools.org is intended to be relied upon as legal advice. The authors disclaim any attorney-client relationship with anyone to whom this document is furnished. Nothing contained in this document is intended to be used, and cannot be used, for the purpose of (i) avoiding penalties under the Internal Revenue Code or (ii) promoting, marketing or recommending to any person any transaction or matter addressed in this document.
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