In 1989, I was hired as the second Director of the Agricultural Preserve Board of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. The County had created the Preserve Board in 1983 to purchase conservation easements on from willing farmers. Lancaster County is the heart of the Pennsylvania Dutch Country with a large Amish and Mennonite population. The County is 60 miles west of Philadelphia and has more than 500,000 residents; yet, two-thirds of the County’s 600,000 acres are still farmed.
The year before I arrived, two important events had occurred: 1) state legislation authored a $100 million bond to purchase conservation easements on farmland; and 2) the Lancaster Farmland Trust, a non-profit dedicated to farmland preservation was formed. One of my first tasks was to help forge a cooperative agreement between the County Preserve Board and the Farmland Trust. This public-private partnership has thrived for nearly 30 years. The two organizations regularly share information and have completed several joint projects, including the preservation of the farm where the movie Witness was filmed. Today, the Preserve Board holds easements on nearly 80,000 acres of farmland, and the Farmland Trust has preserved more than 30,000 acres. Together, they have preserved more farmland than any other county in the United States.
As Director of the Preserve Board, I served as staff to the nine-member board, who recommended easement purchases to the County Commissioners. My position had two important roles: 1) completing the purchase of conservation easements (title search, subordination agreements, settlements, monitoring); and 2) executing a strategy for landscape-scale preservation. Lancaster County has successfully employed three integrated techniques to protect farmland: 1) agricultural zoning of no more than one house per 25 acres; 2) urban growth boundaries to limit the extension of sewer and water lines into the countryside; and 3) the purchase of conservation easements. This strategy has been followed by the leading counties in growth management, such as Baltimore County, MD, Lexington-Fayette County, KY, and Sonoma County, CA.
I left the Preserve Board in 1998 and returned to my previous job as a professor of land use planning. My Lancaster experience led me to create a course on Land Preservation at the University of Pennsylvania, where I now work, but I still live in Lancaster County. I often serve as a consultant to state and local governments and land trusts on planning and land preservation. And I have co-authored two books on farmland preservation: Holding Our Ground: Protecting America’s Farms and Farmland (Island Press, 1998) and The Law of Agricultural Land Preservation in the United States (American Bar Association, 2018).
When people ask why I am passionate about farmland preservation, I explain that farmers and ranchers own most of the privately held land in the America. Their average age is 58. So, tens of millions of acres will change hands in the next few decades. Farmland preservation offers landowners another option besides selling land for development. It offers communities greater control over growth and change, as well as a source of locally-grown food.