Purchase of Agricultural Conservation Easements
Erie County uses Federal, State, and County funds to purchase Agricultural Conservation Easements on properties across the County, restricting development on these parcels and permanently preserving them for agricultural use. As of April 2014, the Erie County Agricultural Easement Purchase Program has invested over $12 million in order to preserve 55 farms in thirteen municipalities, for a total of nearly 6,900 acres.
Under this program, PERMANENT easements are purchased. Subdivision of eased land is not permitted except under very specific circumstances. Although the land remains in the possession of the seller of the easement and may be sold to a third party at a later date, the conditions of the easement travel with the land and apply to the new owner.
Submission of Application
In order to apply for the agricultural land conservation easement program, a landowner must submit a completed application to the Erie County Land Preservation Board (care of the Erie County Department of Planning).
Applications for the program are accepted biennially, from June 1 through September 30 of even-numbered years.
The Erie County Planning Department staff is available to assist landowners with completing the application. The staff will answer questions, and will advise landowners if their farms meet State and County minimum eligibility criteria for participation in the program.
- Be enrolled in an agricultural security area (ASA) consisting of at least 500 acres. All Erie County municipal ASA are eligible.
- Meet one or more of the following acreage requirements:
- Contiguous acreage of at least 50 acres in size
- Contiguous acreage of at least 10 acres and utilized for the production of grapes, potatoes, peaches and/or cherries,
- Contiguous acreage of at least 10 acres, and contiguous to a property which has a perpetual conservation easement in place which is held by a “qualified conservation organization”. An example would be another farm with an agricultural conservation easement placed on it.
- Contain at least 50% of soils which are available for agricultural production and are of capability classes I through IV, as defined by the USDA – Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS).
- Contain the greater of 50% or 10 acres of harvested cropland, pasture or grazing land.
Once the application period has concluded, all applications are evaluated based on soil quality, the farming operation, clustering potential (proximity to other farms), and development potential. Farms receive a score from 1 to 100, based on these factors.
After scoring, the farms are ranked from highest to lowest and the Erie County Agricultural Land Preservation Board (County Board) invites the top-scoring farms to enter into the preservation process. The number of farms selected each year is based on available funding.
After receiving permission from the landowner, the County Board solicits an appraisal of the farm. Each farm is appraised at two values: The value of the farm at its “highest and best use,” or the maximum value of the property if sold for development, and at its “agricultural value,” the value of the property if sold to another farmer for continued agricultural production. The difference between these two values is the easement value, and the County Board may pay up to 100% of the easement value.
Sale Price Negotiation
The County Board negotiates a sale price with the landowners. The sale price is negotiated on a per-acre basis. Although the County Board is prohibited from paying more than 100% of the easement’s appraised value, any difference between the final negotiated sale price and the appraised easement value may be considered a charitable donation and used as a tax deduction. Please contact your accountant or tax advisor for specific information regarding this procedure.
Farm Survey and Title Work
After a sale price has been negotiated, the County Board solicits a commitment of title insurance, and a survey for the farm. The commitment for title insurance is to ensure that there are no outstanding claims on the property, including mortgages, liens, or other claims. Any mortgages must be subordinated to the interests of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Erie County, and the United States, depending on the funding sources involved. A survey is completed to determine the precise boundaries and acreage of the easement, and will be used to determine the final sale price.
Completing the Purchase Process
After the survey has been completed and all other required documentation has been prepared, the County Board recommends the easement purchase to the State Agricultural Land Preservation Board, and submits all required paperwork to the State Bureau of Farmland Preservation. After approval of the purchase by the State Board, a closing is scheduled. At that time, the landowner will receive payment and the easement and any subordination agreements will be recorded at the Erie County Recorder of Deeds.
The easement purchase process begins with an invitation by the County Board for the applicant/landowner to participate in the program. From the time of the Board’s initial contact with the landowner, the purchase process generally takes less than one year to complete.
After closing, annual or biennial inspections are conducted to ensure that the conditions of the easement are being followed.
For more information, or if you have questions, please contact John McGranor (814) 451-7329 or jmcgranor[at]eriecountypa.gov.