Should Lehigh County get out of the business of leasing farmland? And why does it even own farmland?
Those questions were raised Wednesday night by county commissioner Scott Ott, who wanted to know why the county is “in the farmland leasing business.”
The answer: land preservation.
Ott raised the issue as the commissioners voted to advertise to lease three agricultural properties, including more than 384 acres in Lower Milford Township.
Commissioner Lisa Scheller said the three properties currently are being leased and farmed but those leases are going to expire. Commissioners frequently act on such leases.
Ott maintained “this is a side business that if we were running any kind of a focused organization we wouldn’t be involved in.” He suggested finding out the market value of the properties and what it would take to sell them.
Ott said even if the properties were “dumped” in a bad real estate market, “in the long run getting the county out of this business would allow us to focus more on what we’re really supposed to be doing.”
“It’s not so much that the county is in the business of leasing agricultural land,” responded Glenn Solt, the county’s general services director. “It’s that the county has preserved open space. We do own public lands for the sake of preserving open space.”
Ott specifically asked why the county owns 384 acres in Lower Milford.
Commissioner Percy Dougherty said that property originally was purchased to become a county golf course. He explained: “Three commissioners back in the days before home rule went on a spending spree, bought a lot of park lands and open space, and that was going to be a golf course that never reached fruition.”
Ott said if that land was purchased a long time back, the county could not possibly lose money by selling it now.
Dougherty said subsequent boards of commissioners have “reiterated their support for that property in terms of open space and recreation for the future. It was not kept to be farmed forever.”
Dougherty also stressed: “It is preserved land. It doesn’t have much market value.”
Said Ott: “Not only do we buy land, but then we tank its value by what we do to it.”
“Yes, we did that purposely,” said Commissioner Daniel McCarthy.
McCarthy said in the past other commissioners have discussed doing exactly what Ott was suggesting. He said those discussions always lead to people – including descendants of those who sold their land to the county – coming to the commissioners to stress the importance of open space and a guarantee that land will not be developed.
Ott said he has no problem selling county-owned farmland to a non-profit land trust “that wants to bank this kind of land. It just doesn’t seem like it’s a business we ought to be in.”
Said Solt: “We could let it set fallow. We could let it grow into weeds and forests. But many of the open spaces we own historically were agricultural spaces. There’s no reason not to keep them as agricultural spaces.”
Solt said leasing that land generates relatively little revenue for the county, but at least it is being put to productive use.
Scheller said the county was getting about $65 an acre to lease its farmland, but recently has been getting twice or even three times that amount.
The other properties up for lease renewal are seven acres in South Whitehall Township and 21 acres in Whitehall.
Scheller suggested collecting information about all the county’s parcels of land “and see what’s out for lease and the total income to the county.”