Why Put Wealthy Landowners on Welfare?
Pennsylvania Welfare Program for Biggest Landowners
This sounds a bit like a bad joke. The taxpayers of Pennsylvania, most of whom own no land, are being forced to make payments to a handful of landowners, some of whom are not even living in Pennsylvania. In return, what do the taxpayers get? A huge dividend? Lots of jobs? A secure retirement? No, in return for their handouts they are told to expect absolutely nothing, except perhaps that housing will become less affordable.
At a time when governments are running deficits and closely examining expenditures, why do politicians keep the most scandalous programs?
by Mark Hoffman,In the past 13 years, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has removed 20,000 acres of farmland a year from commercial or residential development. The landowner still holds title to the land but it is preserved in perpetuity as farmland through the Pennsylvania Agricultural Easement Purchase Program.
Proponents said the policy is preserving a natural resource, while opponents contend that the program acts as an ATM machine for landowners.
"Agriculture generates jobs and rural income. The program was set up in the late 1980's in a reaction to the rapid loss of farmland," explained Mary Bender. Director of Pennsylvania's Bureau of Farmland Preservation. "The only option a farmer had was selling the land for development. Now, he sells the state the development rights and keeps the farm."The Progress Report points out -- during the 1980s Pennsylvania's population was stagnant. Why was there a "rapid loss of farmland"? Instead of investigating the problem and looking for its cause, the government rushed in with an expensive welfare program.Bender says the state (or the county) pays the farmer the difference between the assessed market value of the land (if developed) and the price it commands as a farm, upwards of $10,000 an acre in some cases.
As of the end of 2002, more than 249,840 acres -- land equal to three Philadelphias -- had been preserved. Close to 2000 farms have been preserved and more than 1,700 are on the waiting list for more handouts. Fifty-three of the state's 67 counties have at least one farm preserved. The agency's goal is 300 farms a year with an outlay of $65 million annually.
Scott Cannon, owner of Cannon Builders and Vice President of the Pennsylvania Home Builders Association, said the state is addressing the wrong issue. By law, the state has builders on the county and state farmland preservation boards, but he says their opinion is not always considered.
"There is no shortage of farmland. But, there is a shortage of affordable housing," said Cannon, from Montgomery County outside Philadelphia. "Preserving the land does not necessarily preserve agriculture. It only prevents development.
"More farmland could be preserved by better zoning -- requiring higher density housing. It is difficult for small builders like me. The land squeeze is pricing some developers out of the market. More sanity in zoning could solve the problem," said Cannon.
John Harris, who sold his development rights in 2001, seems to agree. He took the money he was given for not developing his land and bought rental homes.
"I put the money somewhere it will grow better. I bought more real estate -- row homes as rental properties," said Harris, who owns 60 acres in Montgomery County.
Harris admitted that he personally has never farmed, but 'likes the green space.' He rents out some of the land to an actual farmer.
Anne Bates of Gradyville, just outside of Philadelphia County, sold the development rights of her 82-acre farm. As farmland, it commands about $3,000 an acre, less than one-fifth what it would attract from a developer.
"We might not have any farms in ten or fifteen years were it not for this program," said Bates, who routinely schedules school tours of her working farm. "Developers still call me about the land. Sometimes they'll show up on my doorstep or send me letters in the mail. I tell them it can never be developed."
Lancaster County, considered by many to have some of the best farmland in the country, has more than 50,000 acres set aside for farmland preservation.The Progress Report points out -- in the previous sentence, can you see the contradiction? If someone holds the best farmland in the country, why do they need government intervention? In Communist countries, governments controlled the land and gave out welfare handouts to their buddies -- why is Pennsylvania moving in that direction?Tom Baldrige, president of the Lancaster County Chamber of Commerce, ruffled some feathers of welfare recipients recently when he contended that preserving farmland is not synonymous with preserving the agricultural sector of the economy.
"What good is preserved land if we have no farmers to work it?" he asked, suggesting that more money should go into educating farmers on sound business practices and developing a more ag-friendly business development.
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