- Betsie Blumberg, Atlas Workgroup Member
Preserving Open Spaces
The natural beauty of the Spring Creek Watershed's landscape is increasingly transfigured by development. Its rural character, reflecting generations of farming on its rich soils, attracts residential development. But, as the streets are laid out and the homes and associated commercial establishments are built, acres of farmland and forestlands disappear. The people who live here, however, recognize the need to preserve open spaces. Not only is it pleasant to live near woods and farm fields, open spaces provide a number of important environmental benefits. They are habitat for the native vegetation and wildlife. They protect the water and the well fields. They preserve historical sites and scenic vistas. Centre County, the ClearWater Conservancy, and the local municipalities all have programs to protect open spaces for the long term, and each of their plans are different. Land to be preserved as open space can be protected by purchase, by lease of development rights, or by a conservation easement. Here are some examples of how open spaces are being preserved.
Patton Township experienced a burst of development in the 1990s that included a large shopping center and a new major highway. The township cannot legally restrict development, so the supervisors considered another approach to preserving open space. In 2001 residents responded to a township referendum enabling supervisors to issue a bond of $2,500,000 to purchase open space acreage. Sixty-three percent of voters agreed to bear the tax burden for this cause. A task force of volunteers then established a set of criteria for eligible property and began scouting for potential sites with landowners willing to sell.
In 2006, the township was able to purchase the Haugh Family Farm, 435 acres which the family sold for the available $2,500,000, far less than its appraised value. They also established a $300,000 endowment to maintain the property. As part of the agreement, the family requested that the property remain exclusively farmland and woodland. An independent engineering firm regularly monitors the tract and reports to the township Board by way of maintaining this agreement.
The township has hired an environmentalist and a forester to oversee the land and recommend best practices for management. For example, in recent years, grazing deer have depleted the population of oak seedlings, changing the forest composition to a preponderance of red maple. Under the township's stewardship, the regeneration of oak seedlings is being promoted by protecting them from deer to restore the earlier forest composition. The cropland is leased to a farmer. Although the township cannot collect taxes on property it owns, by leasing the farm and selling some of the timber, it is able to raise some income from this land.
In 2014, the township again surveyed residents asking if they wanted to support further acquisition of open space. This time, over 67% said yes to generate $3,500,000. The task force currently (2017) has a short list of three properties that meet its criteria and whose owners are interested in selling to the township.
The population of Halfmoon Township is booming. In 1999, residents approved a referendum enabling the township to collect a tax that would be used to preserve open space. This led to the Open Space Preservation Ordinance and its guidelines for the operation of the Open Space Preservation Board. Halfmoon Township's solution to preserving open space is to lease development rights from willing owners. Potential parcels are rated according to the Board's criteria and when selected are leased for 99 years. Owners can live on the land and use it, but may not take actions leading to development, such as subdividing it. They continue to pay the property taxes and to collect the income from the lease. Leased land is periodically inspected by the township to ensure that activities on the property are in compliance with the lease contract. If the property is sold, the lease remains in effect.
In 2004, three properties totaling 232 acres were leased. Then applications from owners stopped coming in. Supervisors decided to enhance the program by offering 20-year advance leases. By 2011, 25 more properties comprising 1,776 acres had been added to the program. Halfmoon Township comprises approximately 14,000 acres including 3,200 acres of State game lands. As of January 2017, 2,008 acres have been preserved for 99 years through this program.
The original ordinance was amended in 2008 to create a wildlife corridor that would connect State game lands with the forested Bald Eagle Range. The ClearWater Conservancy purchased 38 acres of the more than 100 acres destined to become the corridor. To put the land into a conservation easement that would protect it perpetually, a party other than the Conservancy needed to purchase the easement. Thus the township purchased the easement. (See the discussion of easements and the ClearWater Conservancy below.) This wildlife corridor enables deer and other wildlife to range over a large swath of open land. In addition to the 38 acres under easement in perpetuity, 66 acres of the corridor are privately owned and protected by enrollment in the township's Open Space Preservation Lease Program.
The Centre County Agricultural Land Preservation Board and the ClearWater Conservancy acquire land for preservation by purchasing easements on private property. This happens when property owners voluntarily sell one of the rights that is part of ownership—development rights. The potential to develop land and thereby increase its value is a right that can be sold or donated to a municipality or agency that wants to conserve that land in perpetuity. The agreement of sale of those rights is an easement. The easement includes conditions to which the owner must comply. For example, the owner may not construct buildings or roads, or clearcut forestland or pollute creeks. Some easements allow restricted subdivision and the construction of limited additional residences. Every easement agreement is different depending on the requirements of both parties, and the holder of the easement monitors the land regularly to make sure that the terms of the easement are maintained. If these terms are violated and cannot be resolved, litigation can ensue.
There are advantages to the landowner for obtaining an easement; there are actually more applications for them than municipalities or conservation agencies can pursue. Many land owners don't want their land lost to development and so to assure that it is preserved, they may donate the easement to a conservation agency or to the municipality, a gift that has tax advantages. Other landowners want the income from the sale. To determine the value of the easement, the land is independently appraised and the value of the development rights is paid to the owner, who can still occupy the land and continue using it as long as easement restrictions are observed. When the owner eventually sells the land, its value has been reduced by the easement which remains with the property, and if the heirs inherit the land, the estate tax may be reduced.
Conservation easements benefit the public because, even on private land not open to the public, they benefit the environment, protecting the waters and the native habitat. Open spaces are economical for municipalities because they don't require the constant services (plowing snow, maintaining roads, etc.) that developed space requires. Easements are used as buffers around national parks and other public lands, military bases, and Native American Indian reservations to extend wildlife habitat and put some distance between these institutions and the crowding of development.
To quote the ClearWater Conservancy's web site, it is "the foremost land trust and natural resource conservation organization in central Pennsylvania." Since 1980, the conservancy has been protecting water resources, providing environmental education to the community, and preserving open space. It does this by raising money to buy land or conservation easements. Its criteria focus on ecosystem characteristics, source water protection, and buffers around existing protected areas. As of February of 2017, it had conserved a total of 6,483 acres in the region. Of that acreage, it holds 16 conservation easements totaling 2,305 acres. All of these were donated partially or in full by the owners. It has facilitated the conservation of 11 properties, 4,134 acres. This includes parcels that it has purchased to convey to an agency that will protect it. For example, the Conservancy purchased 1,000 acres of land adjacent to Rothrock State Forest and transferred it (six parcels) to Pennsylvania's Bureau of Forestry. ClearWater owns the Barrens-to-Bald Eagle Wildlife Corridor and the Fen within Millbrook Marsh.
In 2017 ClearWater is completing the process of purchasing two easement on 300 acres on Slab Cabin Run, a tributary of Spring Creek. In the middle of a rapidly developing area, these easements will protect the source water for State College Borough Water Authority well fields along Slab Cabin Run and will preserve the rolling landscape of this active farmland.
Centre County PACE Program and the Centre County Farmland Trust
Two programs administered by Centre County acquire conservation easements specifically for farmland. One is the county's Purchase of Agricultural Conservation Easements Program (PACE), which buys easements. The other is Centre County Farmland Trust, a private, non-profit organization that accepts donations of easements.
The PACE Program was started in 1989 and is funded by the State, County, and in some cases, local municipalities and the federal government. Its object is to preserve productive agricultural land for future use. The program, administered by the Centre County Agricultural Land Preservation Board, accepts applications from farmers every two years and there is a long waiting list. To be eligible for this program, the land must be located in an established Agricultural Security Area, an area that has been secured for farmland where farmers are protected from seizure by eminent domain and nuisance ordinances.
Acreage qualifying for PACE must be larger than 10 acres and meet requirements that have to do with its agricultural characteristics, such as soil quality and a history of proven crop productivity. The conservation easement remains in perpetuity as do easements held by the Farmland Trust.
The Centre County Farmland Trust accepts donated easements .and offers more flexibility in easement restrictions than PACE. It has its own criteria for inclusion which more flexible than PACE qualifications. Farmers who donate easements qualify for substantial income tax breaks. The Farmland Trust is administered by an all-volunteer Board and raises funds for its operations. Staffing is provided by the County Planning and Community Development Office.
For more information on Centre County land preservation programs, see the County web site.
The map shows all of the preserved open space in the Spring Creek Watershed as of 2016. Conserving the natural attributes of the watershed is clearly of concern to the people who live here. As development spreads, the agencies and volunteer organizations working to protect its natural environment will continue their efforts to conserve the watershed's open spaces.
By clicking on the map above, you will open it as a pdf image that you can enlarge.
Betsie Blumberg studied anthropology and soils. Before retirement she was a science reporter for the National Park Service.