Karen Schaefer- For most people moving to Medina County, the big selling points are low taxes, good schools - and rural charm. This countryside of rolling farms and small towns in close proximity to Cleveland offers many people an appealing escape from the pressures of big city life. But for the past few years, Medina has been one of the fastest-growing counties in the state. And now residents are beginning to pay the price.
Michael Kovack- "We start to talk about quality of life issues here, the congestion, traffic...crime...and, again, the natural resources. We've got major questions about water supply and quality in Medina County right now."
KS- Officials estimate that Medina County is losing 20 to 40 acres of farmland a week to developers. Tomorrow voters will decide whether to pass a sales tax supporters say would help curb uncontrolled growth and preserve the county's agricultural heritage. Michael Kovack is the county auditor. He says paying to keep farmland out of developers' hands will actually save the county money.
MK- "People don't realize that when that 100-acre farm gets developed, you're going to have anywhere from a hundred to three-hundred children in the school system, you're going to see a tax levy on the ballot within three years."
KS- But some local officials accept higher taxes as the inevitable cost of growth.Tom Bahr is one of two Medina County Commissioners who voted to place the one quarter percent sales tax on the March ballot.
Tom Bahr- "I've been told that a strong tax base is 60% industrial/commercial and 40% residential. Unfortunately, in the city of Medina we've reversed that...Which means that your tax dollars are - it's expensive to live here...That's what you pay for. I mean, if you like living here, you have to pay for it."
KS- But auditor Michael Kovack disagrees. He says the county's farms are a vital part of a stable tax base.
MK- "Because farms contribute more in taxes than they use in services, the farms subsidize the residential housing around them. When the residential housing goes in, the rest of us who are already here subsidize the construction of that residential housing. And that's what drives up property taxes here."
John Metter- "I don't need any more taxes."
KS- Supporters say the county would receive at least 30% of its sales tax revenues from visitors. Still, for many residents, a tax increase is a tax increase. John Metter moved to the area 48 years ago. Today he sells and services lawn tractors for rural residents
JM- "Why would I want to inflate the land values so my children and my grandchildren can't afford to live in Medina County?...This preservation thing, to me, is just another subsidy to farmers. He's already got a flock of subsidies."
KS- In fact, the tax is designed to provide funds for purchasing in-perpetuity development rights from farmers. That means farmers can volunteer to sell those rights now, instead of waiting until retirement to sell their land to developers. Supporters say its a win-win situation for farmers and urban dwellers. The farmer retains ownership of his land, but it remains undeveloped, thus stabilizing both property taxes and land values. While Medina County Commissioner Steve Hambley believes the land preservation tax is a powerful tool, he says it's just one of the tools the county is developing to fight urban sprawl.
Steve Hambley- There are other areas that the task force recommended, like our 208 Water Quality Plan, limiting where we have sewers in the future...What overall purpose of the various plans we have is to encourage growth in certain areas...and, if you will, discourage it in other areas."
KS- While it's new to Ohio, farmland preservation is not a new idea. In some states along the populous eastern seaboard, in New England, Pennsylvania, Michigan and California, farmland preservation has been an integral part of land-use planning dating back 25 years. Jill Bukovac is the Ohio field representative for the American Farmland Trust, a national non-profit organization dedicated to halting the loss of productive farmland. She says a dedicated revenue source makes the Medina County program especially promising.
Jill Bukovac- "...that actually would make Medina County one of the strongest programs in the nation...It will serve as a model not only for the rest of the state...but for the Midwest as well...And Medina County within the state is in a really special position, because they're possibly going to be the first county to be able to take advantage of the new state program."
KS- In 1999 Ohio passed legislation authorizing the use of purchase of development rights and conservation easements to protect farmland. This November, Ohio voters will decide two $100 million dollar preservation bond issues that contain 67% matching funds for farmland protection. In addition, Ohio Senator Mike DeWine has introduced a bill in Congress for $55 million dollars to re-fund the national Farmland Protection Program. While no one is predicting a clear win for Medina County's farmland preservation tax issue, so far only the Chamber of Commerce and the home builders association have come out in opposition. But other semi-rural counties feeling the pinch of urban sprawl will be closely watching the outcome of tomorrow's vote. For INFOHIO, I'm Karen Schaefer in Medina County.