Last week, the Schuylkill County Commissioners approved spending an extra $200,000 toward the Schuylkill County Agricultural Land Preservation Program.
It’s the second year in a row the Commissioners approved this amount of money to the farmland preservation program. The money approved Wednesday is on top of the $50,000 they were going to contribute, bringing this year’s total – like last year – to $250,000.
That’s a half-million dollars in two years to a program that didn’t get that money in the previous decade combined.
The typical amount the Commissioners approved in recent history had been no more than $50,000 a year but in some years, as Commissioners Chairman Boots Hetherington noted on Wednesday, it was $0.
Schuylkill County’s Agricultural Land Preservation Program is designed to prevent any future development on local farmland. When a farm owner puts their land into this program, it gets a perpetual agricultural conservation easement.
Farmers actually sell just the development rights on their land but retain all other property rights and are still considered owners of the farm property.
Landowners are “fairly compensated” for putting land into this program. Boots said Wednesday that farmers get $2,500 per acre preserved.
The farmland preservation initiative has apparently been very popular with Schuylkill County farm owners. It’s been so popular, there’s always been a waiting list to get land into the program.
The boons granted by the Commissioners in the last 2 years have worked to greatly reduce that waiting list.
Boots said on Wednesday that at its biggest, at the end of 2021, the waiting list of farms for the preservation program was 70 or more. And about 6 Schuylkill County farms a year apply for preservation.
Speaking to the importance he sees in the program, Hetherington said, “Farm preservation is food security. Food security is national security.”
When the Commissioners voted on the farmland preservation money on Wednesday (Jan. 18), it did not go down as it did last year.
This year, much to the surprise of Hetherington, there was unanimous consent approving the money. And there were zero questions raised by either Commissioners George Halcovage or Gary Hess about any potential conflict of interest with the money and the Hetherington farm outside Ringtown.
Last year, the two Republican Commissioners – Hetherington and Halcovage – squabbled over the extra funding.
Halcovage definitely brought up the conflict of interest and said he would have supported Boots last year if the Chairman had supported Halcovage’s alleged broadband initiative.
Hetherington acknowledged that his farm was one of those on the wait list and that increasing the funding would bump his property up in the pecking order for that preservation status.
Hess, for the record, voted in favor of the extra funding in 2022 and 2023.
This year, however, there was none of that back-and-forth between Halcovage and Hetherington even though it seemed on Wednesday that Boots was expecting it.
On at least 2 separate occasions, the Commissioners were out of sync on how they’d handle the particular motion to approve the farmland preservation money separately from all the other budget adjustments they voted on Wednesday.
Doing that would have given Halcovage the chance to vote ‘No’ on just that motion but approve of the others. It seemed as though Boots was expecting Halcovage to vote against it as he did in 2022.
Instead, they voted on all the budget adjustments, including farmland preservation, and the Commissioners all agreed.