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Schuylkill County News

Schuylkill County Approves $200K in Extra Farmland Preservation Money

Not without a little bit of controversy, of course.

Schuylkill County Commissioners approved an extra $200,000 in farmland preservation money at Wednesday’s Work Session meeting. They also approved the total amount of farmland preservation they’re setting aside in 2024, at $256,580.39.

That total equals the $200,000 approved as a supplemental budget appropriation on Wednesday, $50,000 in budgeted money, and the balance from interest gained on Clean & Green rollback penalties collected in 2023.

These rollback penalties are incurred by a landowner who breaches the preservation contract by developing on the land. According to information on the Pennsylvania Dept. of Agriculture website, “A landowner who breaches the covenant is subject to seven years of rollback taxes at 6% interest per year. The rollback tax is the difference between what was paid under Clean and Green versus what would have been paid, if the property had not been enrolled, plus 6% simple interest per year.”

Schuylkill County Approves More Than $250K in Farmland Preservation Funds

This marks the third year in a row that Commissioners approved this extra sum to go toward preserving farmland in the area.

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Farmland preservation is about keeping certain lands dedicated to farming and protecting them from being developed into things like buildings or urban areas.

The program works by having farmers sell the right to develop their land to the government (either the state or county). This means the government pays farmers so that the land can’t be built on, ensuring it stays as farmland.

Farmers keep owning their land and can use it for agriculture, but they agree not to turn it into something else, like a housing development. This agreement lasts forever, so the land will always be used for farming.

In the recent past, Schuylkill County contributed $50,000 per year. Some years before that, the County contributed $0.

That changed once Commissioner Boots Hetherington, who owns a significant amount of farmland in Union Twp., between Shenandoah and Ringtown, was installed into office in 2020 and the County started receiving federal COVID relief money.

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In Schuylkill County, there are currently at least 84 farms on a waitlist to get some of this farmland preservation money. So Boots used that as the reason for the County to contribute more than it had in the past on an annual basis.

That $50,000 was usually enough to preserve one farm in the past. But with the about 5 farms per year being added to the list, it wasn’t putting a dent into the waitlist.

According to our reporting from previous years, even this $200,000 extra isn’t dinging the waitlist. It actually keeps growing. When we first reported on this back in 2022, the waitlist was in the low 70s. So, about 13 or 14 farms have been added to the list, despite the extra money for preservation.

Kelse Brown, from Schuylkill County Conservation District, says the county has between 45-48,000 acres of preserved farmland. That’s 115 Schuylkill County farms. He also says some of the farms still on the waitlist have been on it since the early 2000s.

“Typically, we look at (preserving) 3-5 farms a year, depending on the funds we have available,” Brown says.

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In addition to the County money, the state government matches our contribution, anywhere between 3-5 times what we put in to farmland preservation.

Hetherington says that matching multiplier has gone down in recent years as more counties participate. It used to be a 4:1 match but last year, it wasn’t quite a 3:1 match.

Farmland Preservation Comes With Bits of Controversy

When the County started kicking in an extra $200,000 on top of the $50,000 it had in recent history, the boost in farmland preservation money drew concern from then-Commissioner George Halcovage, who wondered if there was a conflict of interest and if Hetherington would stand to gain from the extra money.

The money did move his farmland up on the waitlist. And Hetherington has since received farmland preservation money but he says in a conversation with The Canary after Wednesday’s meeting that his farm didn’t receive any County money.

Instead, he says, his got state and federal preservation money. Pennsylvania qualified for federal farmland preservation money and his farm, because of the lack of buildings on it, qualified for that preservation money, he says.

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“I did not use any County money,” Hetherington tells The Canary.

Brown also confirmed that at Wednesday’s meeting.

As for the money the County is kicking in toward farmland preservation in 2024, Hetherington says, “No Hetherington or any relative is going to get this year’s money.”

Part of the reason Halcovage objected to the farmland preservation money, besides the potential conflict-of-interest, was a squabble he and Hetherington had at that time over funding of their own “pet projects.”

Hetherington wanted to use money for farmland preservation and Halcovage favored using money for the County’s sauntering broadband project.

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At Wednesday’s meeting, there was some objection from those in attendance over Hetherington voting on the farmland preservation money due to a potential conflict-of-interest.

There was also a point in the meeting when Hetherington let out a very loud sneeze as Brown explained how Hetherington had his farm preserved.

You can watch Brown’s presentation, including the sneeze, from our video, which starts in the player below near the start of the farmland preservation presentation:

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