Advocates favor House bill to boost Del. ag land preservation

Associate Editor

DOVER, Del. (Feb. 9, 2015) — A group of state agriculture advocates wants to amend the Delaware constitution to ensure $10 million in tax revenue is dedicated to agricultural land preservation each year. 
The Delaware Farm Bureau and others are pushing for the support of a House bill that would force future administrations to fully support the Delaware Farmland Preservation Fund through revenue from the state’s realty transfer tax.
The fund was designed to distribute $10 million each year so the state could purchase land development rights from interested farmers, protecting farmland from future residential or commercial development.
But the act — passed in 2005 — that created the fund was not a constitutional amendment and did not prohibit future administrations from under-funding the program, which became less attractive in an increasingly tight budgetary climate.
Gov. Jack Markell this year has recommended $3 million for it and has sought to fully fund the program twice over the last seven years.
“This is a program that has had accolades from all over,” said Pam Bakerian, executive director of the Delaware Farm Bureau. “This is something that a lot of states would love to have. We have a wonderful system when it’s funded.”
Bakerian also co-sponsored the 2005 act while serving as a House member.
She and other preservation supporters, including state agriculture Secretary Ed Kee, spoke before the House Agriculture Committee in May, supporting the bill.
A number of committee members said they agreed with the bill’s intent but worried about setting a precedent that would constitutionally bind future lawmakers to support the program. Rep. S. Quinton Johnson, D-Middletown, said he was concerned such a change would lead to other programs seeking constitutional funding mandates, according to minutes of the meeting.
Bakerian said she hoped the House would act on the bill before it left for a five-week recess last month, but debate over the future of the state’s death penalty prevented it. The legislature reconvenes March 8. It will be a challenge getting it passed. Rep. William J. Carson (Smyrna) is the bill’s lone Democratic co-sponsor, and constitutional amendments in Delaware must get two-thirds of the vote in each house and pass two consecutive legislative sessions.
The amendment “is worthy of the challenge,” Bakerian said. “Changing the constitution is never taken lightly, and I understand that.”
Bob Garey, chairman of the state Agricultural Lands Preservation Foundation, also publicly supported the bill last year said the fight to secure money for the program has gotten tougher over time.
But the preservation process is good for the state and farmers, who often want to preserve their farm but also use the money to stabilize their operations, Garey said.
“It’s an investment in protecting farmland,” he said in an interview last week with The Delmarva Farmer. “But it’s also a savings to the county and state because they don’t have to run infrastructure to a bunch of houses (or commercial development).”
The risks of not passing the amendment are simple, Bakerian said.
“Farmland could very well start to be developed,” she said. “This is open space that is absolutely no cost to the government. This is not a park.”