Saturday, January 25, 2003

State buying development rights

By Rob Phillips
The Cincinnati Enquirer

WAYNE TOWNSHIP - Jerry Gerber's family has farmed in northern Butler County for generations, and he's trying to make sure that goes on for generations to come.

By the end of this month, the Ohio Department of Agriculture plans to purchase the development rights for Mr. Gerber's 762-acre farm, declaring the land can only be used for agricultural purposes - a first for Butler County, where a residential and commercial boom has been eating up farmland.

[photo] Cleo and Jerry Gerber on their farm in Butler County.
(Michael Snyder photo)
| ZOOM |
"We've been farming all of our lives and have other generations of family that want to keep farming," Mr. Gerber said. "They have to have land in order to farm."

Mr. Gerber's son, son-in-law and three grandsons are active in agriculture.

"I just feel strong about agriculture. It has been our livelihood and our success," Mr. Gerber said. "This is just ensuring that the next generations get the chance to farm."

Ohio lost 212,000 acres of farmland because of exurban growth in 1992-97, second only to Texas, according to state figures. Exurbs are defined as regions beyond the suburbs, inhabited mostly by persons in the upper income group.

Butler County had 134,560 acres of farmland in 1997, and has lost about 2,000 acres a year, said Steve Bartels, extension agent for the Ohio State University Extension office in Butler County.

To combat this trend, the Ohio Department of Agriculture is soliciting farmers interested in preserving their land for farming.

Through the Clean Ohio Fund, the state has $6.25 million a year for the next four years to help buy rights. Federal money also will supplement the cause. In 2002, 442 farmers applied for protection, but the state could only afford to buy the rights of 25 farms.

The estimated average cost of development rights being purchased through the program is $2,000 an acre. However, officials said Mr. Gerber will get considerably less because he is donating two-thirds of his rights to the state. Officials declined to disclose the total price.

Farmers who sell the development rights also will enjoy tax benefits that include income tax, estate tax and capital gains tax deductions, said Larry Frimerman, executive director of Three Valley Conservation Trust, which helps local applicants through the buying process.

Mr. Gerber says his decision wasn't for financial gain.

"We're not in it for the quick buck. We are in it for the long-term investment and for the next generations," he said.

Mr. Gerber's farm is particularly attractive to developers because of its 3 miles of bordering roadways. He frequently receives letters from developers interested in buying some or all of his 2,000 acres in Butler and Preble counties, he said.

The farms selected for the program ranked highest in criteria such as soil quality and type, proximity to other protected properties, proximity to other farms, and threats of impending development.

"It's based on trying to pick farms that are under development pressure but not right under the nose of the bulldozer," Mr. Bartels said.

The Conservation Trust, OSU Extension and other organizations are sponsoring meetings to inform local farmers about this new program.

The next meeting is at 7 p.m. Monday at the Oxford Courthouse.

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