He said the program has fulfilled its economic purpose in its nearly 20-year existence for a county that had a 3.3 percent unemployment rate two months ago. Lancaster voters created the program in 1983 when they approved a $100 million bond package to underwrite it.
“When you’re trying to preserve farmland, you’re trying to preserve an industry,” Daniels said to a small group of growers and government officials at a noon workshop a few weeks ago at Western Michigan University.
Daniels told them that over a million acres of the nation’s farmland have been preserved under a PDR program. He said 24 states have one, as do 45 counties in Pennsylvania.
Lancaster County, located near the southeast corner of the state, has a population of 470,000 that is expected to grow to 600,000 by 2020. County farmers produce about $800 million worth of goods there each year, which makes it the top farming county in the northeast.
Lancaster has preserved 55,000 farming acres of its 600,000 total acres under the PDR. The county has set aside 44,000 acres, while the nonprofit Lancaster Farmland Trust has preserved another 11,000 acres.
Daniels said the program there appraises the current development value a property has against its farming value, and the difference often becomes the PDR purchase price. But he added that there is a limit to what officials should pay for development rights.
“If you’re paying over $5,000 an acre, you’re not going to be able to sustain a program, in my opinion,” he said.
Daniels said Lancaster has spent $500 million thus far on preserving farmland and has gone to the bond market three times over the last 11 years for financial support. The county also generates money for it from a 2-cents-per-pack tax on cigarette sales.
Enforcing the PDR, Daniels said, hasn’t been a problem for Lancaster officials. Nor has it been costly, averaging about $200 a year for each farm in the program. He said there were some enforcement issues, but added that the county has never taken anyone to court. But sometimes, he said, finding financing for deals has been troublesome.
“Ag lenders are really in the driver’s seat for development rights,” said Daniels.
As for opposition to the program, Daniels said there wasn’t much from the start because developers were too busy building projects when the program got underway. Over time, he said, developers came aboard because land was set aside for them.
“It’s a popular program. More than 600 farms have been preserved and the county has a backlog of 300 farms,” said Daniels. “Peace has been made there with the developers.”
Lancaster was named the most affordable housing market in the state and the eighth most affordable in the northeastern region of the United States in 1999.
Daniels was a planner in Lancaster County from 1989 to 1998. Today he teaches planning at the University of New York.
A Kent County task force analyzed the Lancaster program and patterned a proposed plan after it. The ag production in the county is worth about $120 million each year, making Kent the fifth largest producer in the state.