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Presentation grows support for county's farmland preservation program

By Len Righi, WFMZ.com Reporter
Published On: Mar 07 2013 10:50:54 PM CST
EASTON, Pa. -

The administrator of Northampton County's farmland preservation program reaped support from county council Thursday night and planted some seeds that could help keep the program funded in the future.

Maria Bentzoni, who has been the program administrator for 11 years, gave a 20-minute "informational" presentation to council. After it was over, council signaled to county executive John Stoffa that there is support for continued funding of the program that over the last 23 years has preserved 123 farms with a total of almost 12,400 acres.

Since 2004, the county has collected a half-mill open space tax, and $12 million of that has been spent on farmland preservation. (Over that same period, $4 million from the tax has been spent on building and maintaining county and municipal parks and $3 million protecting environmentally sensitive areas.)

Bentzoni's presentation also had secondary purpose -- growing support among future members of council and the new county executive. Four of five council members up for re-election this year have decided not to run, as has Stoffa. And no fewer than four council candidates were in the audience at Thursday night's council meeting.

"With five seats on council up for re-election, and a new county executive coming in, it's hard to know what the mindset of council and the executive will be," Bentzoni said after the meeting.

Bentzoni's said during her presentation that the weak housing market has helped boost farmland preservation, because developers who bought land are reluctant to build. "I've had more calls from developers than I can count," Bentzoni said. "They're trying to recoup losses and cut down on inventory."

She predicted that the next five or six years are going to be "our best opportunity" to preserve farmland, "before the developers get back on their feet."

Bentzoni mentioned a study done for the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission forecasting that 200,000 more people will be moving to the area by 2040. "Where are they going to live?" she asked rhetorically.

Bentzoni said that since the county began its innovative Farmland Preservation Municipal Partnership in 2011, the county's waiting list of farms seeking preservation money has dwindled to zero, saying such a thing is unheard of. "It was a daunting, risky, insane concept, but it worked," said Bentzoni.

The partnership allows municipalities who contribute funds to the county to preserve farms inside their borders to receive a matching grant.

"And by having a large pool of money that goes up to the state, we get a larger return," Bentzoni added. "In 2012, [Northampton County] got the largest return in the state, $6.6 million. We beat Lancaster [County]. Nobody beats Lancaster County."

Bentzoni said she was pleasantly surprised this year when the county received 33 applications for farmland preservation -- "23 of them brand new" -- noting that 20 of the 33 qualified for the program. "We don't solicit, we don't knock on doors. People who want to preserve land come to us," Bentzoni told council. "I'm asking for consistent funding. We've proved to you the demand is there."