Some Ohioans believe one way to slow urban sprawl is to preserve the state's rural farmland. This November, voters in Wayne County will decide whether to pass a quarter-percent sales tax to fund the purchase of development rights from willing farmers. It's the second time an Ohio county has tried to pass such a measure. Almost two years ago a similar issue in Medina County failed. Ohio's Governor supports this latest effort. Earlier this year he signed into law a statewide fund that would provide matching dollars for local farmland preservation efforts. But one Wayne County resident believes the proposal goes too far. He's trying to get voters to turn it down. 90.3 WCPN's Karen Schaefer reports.
Karen Schaefer- As you cross the border into Wayne County from the north, the landscape changes abruptly. The outlet malls and fast food restaurants that have sprung up around the town of Lodi in neighboring Medina County give way to open fields dotted with barns, silos, and dairy herds. It's a rural landscape familiar to most Ohio residents - but one that some people fear is rapidly disappearing.
Mark Weaver- It was too late for Medina County. Agriculture there, it was not going to be possible to save it. That's clearly not the case with Wayne County.
KS- Wayne still has a viable farm industry. It's the state's leader in dairy farm production. Next week, voters will decide on a measure that proponents believe will help retain the rural character of areas like this. They want residents to pass a quarter-percent sales tax to fund a voluntary program for the purchase of development rights from farmers. At a weekend rally at a church basement in Wooster, supporters are gathered to enjoy local farm produce. Mark Weaver heads the committee backing Issue 1. He says the measure would keep farmland in agriculture - and out of developer's hands.
MW- A PDR program works by essentially paying them for the development rights for their land. That would be calculated by an appraiser assessing the agricultural value of their land as opposed to the development value of their land if it were developed under our comprehensive plan under existing laws.
KS- Weaver says the group is hoping to match the annual $2.3 million the 10-year sales tax would generate with state farmland preservation funds approved by voters earlier this year. The Clean Ohio Fund earmarks $25 million in bond sales for saving agricultural land. It could provide a 3-to-1 match for local funds, so farmers could get as much as $4,000 an acre for the development rights to their land. Weaver says the PDR program isn't for everyone. It would only be offered to farmers in rural areas not targeted for development by the county land-use plan. And that, Weaver hopes, is another incentive that will convince city dwellers to approve the new tax.
MW- If we simply allow development all across the county, of course, we're going to have to provide police and fire services, new schools, road improvement across the county. That is going to increase our property taxes. So I believe this tax will pay for itself.
KS- The county auditor estimates that the tax would cost the average household just $4 a month. But one man remains unconvinced. Outside the church, Larry Weese is a lone picketer, walking up and down the sidewalk with a sign asking residents to vote against Issue 1. Weese lives in nearby Orrville and commutes daily to Medina County where he works as a housing inspector. His campaign has financial backing from local businesses and real estate developers. Weese believes voters are being lied to about the benefits of the plan.
Larry Weese- This program is designed to entice people to give up rights that they might not normally fritter wawy. I'm talking about generations that have not been born yet. Why should we handcuff our kids' ability to do with the land as they wish?
KS- Weese also believes the sales tax would place an undue hardship on people living on fixed incomes. But his biggest concern is that a tax is not the best way to handle farmland preservation.
LW- Even the people who have PDR's in place say you've got to have the other pieces of the puzzle in place first. So I would advocate, township by township, visionary, enforceable zoning.
KS- But Jack Shaner of the Ohio Environmental Council disagrees. He says historically, townships have been slow to make the necessary zoning changes.
Jack Shaner- While we wait for that, here is a chance, at least in Wayne County, to put a voluntary program in place that can work, that can help maintain, help preserve farmland. These can go hand in hand. It's not one or the other.
KS- So far, it's estimated that about half of Wayne County voters are in favor of the issue. The local Farm Bureau has voiced its support. With the average age of American farmers approaching 60, there's concern about what will happen to farmland as the current generation of farmers retires. Lavinia Parmenter owns this 393-acre farm a few miles northwest of Wooster. She says the farmland preservation program could save her farm.
Lavinia Parmenter- I'm the daughter of William Arthur Parmenter who is descended from the first person to purchase this land from the government in 1817. We've dwindled down to one descendant here. But this descendant has taken it as an obligation to try to do as well as I can on the farm and hope that we can keep it together for other people to enjoy.
KS- Other states like Maryland and Pennsylvania have passed similar measures to buy development rights from farmers without first changing local zoning laws. In Pennsylvania, more than 200,000 acres have been protected since 1989 at a cost of $650 million. If Wayne County approves Issue 1, it will be the first in the state to fund farmland preservation. That could create a model for other counties to follow. But if the measure fails, backers say they will try again. In Wayne County, Karen Schaefer, 90.3 WCPN News.