Sussex brokers $3M agricultural easement purchase

Sussex County Council approved a major agricultural lands preservation deal at the May 2 council meeting, by a 4-1 vote (Council Member George Cole opposed).

Council voted to pool $650,000 in county funds — $300,000 already earmarked for agricultural land preservation in last year’s budget (2006 Fiscal Year), plus another $350,000 specifically earmarked for Sussex County Land Trust (SCLT) preservation initiatives.

These revenues, plus $350,000 in private contributions — garnered by the SCLT — combined for $1 million in local funds.

The county used the local $1 million to leverage $1 million in state funds and $1 million in federal funds and, on May 2, agreed to use those monies to purchase nearly 500-acres-worth of agricultural preservation easements.

Despite rumors to the contrary, these easements are for all intents and purposes permanent, once the deal goes through.

The state — not the landowners — has the option to release the easement. Mike McGrath, chief of planning for the state Department of Agriculture, said this was a standard escape valve, giving the state an out if the ground, for whatever reason, one day became un-farmable.

“But the odds of a public body dissolving an easement … are almost nil,” he added.

And even then, McGrath pointed out, if the landowners wanted their property back, they’d have to pay appreciated market value for it (less the discount they offered the state when they sold the preservation easement).

Landowners receive no money at all for 10 years — the equivalent of getting to the head of the waiting list, as McGrath characterized it. Once landowners receive payment for the easements, they’re in for good and all.

And he applauded the very rare individuals who were willing to take the big hit on their property value. “Not many people will walk away from millions of dollars just to preserve the land,” McGrath noted. “We always hear, ‘You’re giving people all this money,’ but they’re giving it to us at half its value, or less than half.”

Including the $3 million deal brokered on May 2, McGrath said the state had purchased $15.4 million in agricultural lands preservation easements.

However, the participating landowners had more than matched that by voluntarily surrendering $19.7 million in property value, he said.

McGrath warned anyone considering participation in the agricultural lands preservation program that it was a serious business, deserving serious discussion with family members, a lawyer and an accountant.

In some cases, discounts ranged as high as 70 percent, he said, and the state ranked prospective participants based on the amount of the discount they were willing to offer.

Sussex County was authorized to set its own criteria, and the SCLT’s vision for a “Grand Wildlife Corridor” loop figured predominantly in the $3 million deal, but McGrath said all of the participants had offered discounts of at least 50 percent.

The nearly 500 acres cover four working farms in the western county (Seaford, Bridgeville and Milton). As SCLT President and CEO Wendy Baker explained, they’re all either adjacent to, or near, land associated with the budding Grand Wildlife Corridor.

The goal, Baker reiterated, was to create an at-least 1,000-foot-wide preservation corridor, basically encircling central Sussex County.

It’s envisioned as a wild swath starting at Prime Hook, arcing over to the Nanticoke watershed, looping down toward the Great Cypress Swamp (west of Selbyville), and swinging northward again, through the state parks along the beach.

Cole raised debate, as he’s done in the past, over the lack of public access onto the agricultural land easements.

“I do support ag lands preservation — when the money comes from sources other than Sussex County,” he said.

He indicated more of a preference for open-space programs. “When the county gets in and spends the taxpayers’ money like this, it should be public access,” Cole said. “I know, it’s open space — it sounds good, it feels good. But we’re not preserving special places, we’re preserving farms. They’re businesses.”

However, Baker noted the reference to agriculture in the SCLT mission of “protecting natural, cultural, agricultural and recreational resources…”

Council Member Vance Phillips said he’d heard the public-access argument before, so he’d done some research. He said he hadn’t been able to find anything himself, nor had anyone in county administration, regarding a requirement that lands the county preserved had to be accessible to the public.

The other council members agreed, giving the supermajority (four-fifths) approval necessary for the expenditure.

McGrath applauded the county for crafting such a uniquely cooperative preservation deal between four private property owners. “Sussex County is leading the way this year,” he said.