Pennsylvania - CHESTER COUNTY
Countywide program - Formed in 1989 - researched by Deborah Bowers
OVERVIEW - Chester County is part of the sprawling Philadelphia region in southeastern Pennsylvania, and yet is the second ranking county in the state in the annual value of farm production. Its most noted high value agricultural product is mushrooms, but a wide variety of other crops also contribute to the local economy. Southern, eastern, and northern sections of the county are highly suburbanized, while the western part is relatively rural and contains large contiguous farm areas. Counting easements acquired by both the county and nonprofit conservation groups, Chester in 2003 ranks among the top 12 counties nationwide in agricultural easement acres acquired. Through its recently-adopted Challenge Grant Program, the county offers to match township contributions to easement purchases in northern areas that receive development pressures from an Interstate highway corridor. Five of the county's townships have TDR ordinances for farmland protection, but few or no transfers have been recorded to date.
EASEMENT ACTIVITY - 16,514 county-purchased agricultural
acres preserved on 167 properties: mushrooms, dairy, hay, apples, corn, wheat,
Goals: 17,500 county acquired acres by 2004; 20,000 county acquired acres in 2005.
Other Easement Programs: 27,000 acres (some agriculture, some open space) preserved by The Brandywine Conservancy, mostly through donation, and a smaller amount acquired by another nonprofit. Townships do not have independent easement programs, but contribute funds to county purchases.
Total Agricultural Easements in County: Approximately 30,000 acres.
Acquisition Spending to Date: About $60 million.
Revenues: $35.2 million in state funds, $23.5 million in county bond revenues, $690,000 in federal funds and smaller amounts from township contributions. Voters in 1989 approved a $50 million bond issue for open space purposes, with $12 million dedicated to farmland acquisitions.
GOVERNANCE - The nine-member Chester County Agricultural Land Preservation Board (ALPB) oversees the easement program. Its members are appointed to three-year terms by the Chester County Commissioners. Program staff are administratively housed by the Chester County Planning Commission.
STAFF AND OPERATING BUDGET - Three full-time staff. The annual operating budget is about $440,000.
ORIGINS - In 1980, the county commissioners appointed an Agricultural Development Council to seek ways to retain the local farm industry and its land base. In response to state legislation the following year which allowed the creation of Agricultural Security Areas, the county actively encouraged landowners to participate in such areas. When the state's easement program and funding were established in 1989, the county followed quickly by organizing its local program. The first easements were acquired in 1990.
ACQUISITION PROCESS AND STRATEGY - For both the state
and local programs, the APB reviews the rankings of applications carried out
by the staff, presents offers to landowners and submits its choices to the state.
The Challenge Grant Program, which is the county's local program, geographically
targets easement acquisitions in northern area municipalities that put up matching
Rating of Parcels: Quantitative. Chester County uses two ranking formulas, one for its local Challenge Grant Program applicants, and one for its state-match applicants. The local program criteria are more flexible, allowing for operations as small as 25 acres and forms of agriculture not allowed under the state program, such as equine activities.
Other Criteria: Minimum state-designated criteria are size or contiguity, location in an Agricultural Security Area, soils and harvested cropland. For its Challenge Grant Program, the county has added incentives to attract certain applicants, such as extra points for use of like-kind exchange. This particular incentive is meant to attract Amish farmers by allowing them to acquire more farmland without handling government money.
CONNECTIONS TO LOCAL PLANNING AND LAND USE POLICIES
- Agricultural land retention has been a priority of the Chester County Commissioners
since about 1980. The county's land use plan updated in 1988 delineated Agricultural
Preservation Areas. A 1996 comprehensive plan update encourages the use of TDRs
and growth boundaries.
Zoning: Fourteen of 73 townships have some form of agricultural protection zoning, with allowable density ranges of one unit to 10 acres (1:10) to 1:25. Many townships have downzoned in recent years.
TDR Arrangements: The largely inactive TDR programs created by several townships call for specific sending and receiving areas, with potentially higher densities in receiving areas. These programs were established in large part to mitigate landowners' economic losses resulting from downzoning.
2000 Population: 433,501
1990-2000 Population Change: +57,105 residents; +15 percent
173,363 acres: 79 percent cropland
Conversion to Urban Use: Comparative conversion data not available.
OTHER AGRICULTURAL CHARACTERISTICS
1997 Market Value: $342.8 million Number of Farms: 1,424
Principal Commodities: Mushrooms, nursery and greenhouse crops
MAP NARRATIVE - EASEMENT GEOGRAPHY (PROGRAM MAP)
County-acquired easements are scattered in most parts of Chester County, but are relatively numerous in the southwest between U.S. 30 and U.S. 1. Several small blocks of protected land are located elsewhere. The map does not show the 27,000 acres of easements acquired by the Brandywine Conservancy.