Cutbacks will slow farmland preservation
To learn more
If you want to learn more about Rock County's new PACE program, or if you are interested in participating, call the Rock County Planning and Development Department at (608) 757-5587 or go to co.rock.wi.us and click on the planning and development link under "departments."
JANESVILLE Rock County's new farmland preservation program would go on without financial support from the state but probably at a slower pace, a county official said.
Gov. Scott Walker's version of the biennial state budget, which he introduced March 1, would kill the state's Working Lands Initiative, which supports the purchase of agricultural conservation easements.
The state program provides money to the county PACE program. Generally, the state covers about one-quarter of the cost of each project. Federal money pays for half. Local or private money makes up the rest, said Tom Sweeney, director of the Rock County Land Conservation Department.
The Rock County program will continue, Sweeney said, but the loss of state money could slow its progress.
The Rock County Board in January approved the county's first PACE program.
The program allows the county to pay landowners for the value of their land. The land is not sold but is put into a permanent easement that prevents development. PACE could give a choice to some landowners who don't want to sell their properties to developers but do want to realize the full value of their land.
Farmland typically brings a higher price when it is sold for development than when it is sold for continued farming.
The county board Thursday unanimously approved a resolution opposing Walker's plan to eliminate the state program. PACE enhances quality of life in Rock County, supports the county's agricultural economy and preserves its rural character, the resolution states.
The county still has about $750,000 set aside to buy conservation easements on farmland and still anticipates getting federal money, county board Chairman Russ Podzilni said. The county hopes some residents might donate money to keep the program moving, he said.
In February, the county approved the first six PACE applications. The applications included 1,050 acres in Clinton, Union and La Prairie townships.
If state funding goes away, the county could partner with private land conservation organizations or seek money from other sources, Sweeney said. Those who designed the program never expected public funding to be a permanent, guaranteed cash source, he said.
"We knew funding would go through cycles," Sweeney said.
The proposed state budget would cut the source of state funding by eliminating the per-acre conversion fees the state charges when land is rezoned from agricultural use. The fees are used to pay for farmland preservation in Wisconsin, Sweeney said.
The county wouldn't be directly impacted by the elimination of conversion fees, but the fees were a good tool to encourage smart long-term planning, said Paul Benjamin, director of Rock County's Planning and Development Department.
"What I thought the high conversion fees did was to challenge counties and towns to plan effectively for agriculture," Benjamin said.
The fees forced planners to carefully consider whether to zone property as farmland. That was intended to encourage planners to protect only the best farmland, Benjamin said.
"Plan for your best ag land that you're certain will be in ag for the foreseeable future," Benjamin said.
If there are reasons to take the land out of the program, such as poor soils, steep topography, proximity to a city or a tendency to be wet, Benjamin said, "then take it out via the planning process."