West Virginia bill creates incentives to save farms, open spaces

West Virginia farmers who want to ensure themselves a comfortable retirement without selling their land to developers may soon have another option. A bill that would let them sign over their development rights, permanently preserving the land as open space, was approved by the legislature and sent to Gov. Cecil Underwood.

Under the farmland preservation program, landowners could still lease, work or sell their land. They just couldn’t change its current use. West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle is one of the most rapidly developing areas of the Chesapeake watershed.

Clint Hogbin, chairman of the Eastern Panhandle People’s Empowerment Coalition, helped to draft the legislation for state Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley, and scheduled 13 public meetings to outline it for farmers. “We spent a lot of time explaining that they’re selling or donating just one right — development,” Hogbin said. “Everything else on their farm that they’re doing remains.”

Between 1992 and 1997, West Virginia lost 275,600 acres to development, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Fewer than 21,000 working farms remain.

Senate Bill 209 would create a voluntary program to be funded through state and federal grants. It is aimed at sustaining farms, curbing unchecked growth, enhancing tourism and preserving landscapes and open spaces, Agriculture Commissioner Gus Douglass said.

Landowners could donate property, but would most likely sell their development rights under a formula created in the bill. The state would pay the difference between the fair market value for a non-farm use and the current assessed value of the farmland. Landowners accepting the state’s offer have five years to change their minds. The money is held in escrow to ensure that people don’t take it, then change their minds and sell to a builder. After five years, the transfer of development rights would be irreversible.

“West Virginia has finally caught up with pressures and realities of life that have existed along our Eastern Seaboard and in other states for years — the people pressure and the conversion of farmlands,” Douglass said.

About 20 other states already have open space laws allowing them to tap into a federal fund created in 1996 to pay for the easements.

The Sierra Club in 1999 ranked West Virginia worst in the nation for attempting to prevent urban sprawl. Neighboring Maryland ranked first when rated on mass transit improvements, green space preservation and public acquisition of open land.

Efforts to save open space in West Virginia will initially focus on the Eastern Panhandle, which is at greatest risk. But interest might also come from the rapidly developing region between Charleston and Huntington, and in the Northern Panhandle.

Hogbin predicts the program will be an easy sell. “I have run into an incredible number of people who have had their farm in the family for generations and want it to stay in their families,” he said. “These folks have made the decision to preserve their land. It’s not our intention to compete with developers. It’s been our intention to give existing farmers an alternative — to give them the same thing their counterparts in Maryland and other states have.”

Watchdog groups identify ‘wasteful’ water projects

The proposed Chesapeake & Delaware Canal deepening is one of the most wasteful and environmentally harmful water projects in the nation, an environmental group and a taxpayer watchdog organization said in a new report.

The deepening was singled out among the “25 most wasteful water projects” in the nation in a report titled, “Troubled Waters” which urged the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to stop the projects. “It is time for the Army to stop waging war against our environment,” said Mark Van Putten, president of the National Wildlife Federation, which released the report with Taxpayers for Common Sense.

Ralph DeGennaro, executive director of the taxpayers group, said halting the 25 projects would save at least $6 billion. “The Corps is out of control,” he said. “Their credo seems to be damn the taxpayers and full speed ahead.”

The report was released regionally by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the C&D Canal League, both of which oppose the project.

According to the report, the nearly $90 million project to deepen the C&D Canal from 35 to 40 feet was authorized in 1996 contingent on favorable Corps studies to improve the shortest route to the Port of Baltimore.

But an independent review panel appointed by Rep. Wayne Gilchrest, R-MD, determined that the project cannot be economically justified. Justification of the last canal deepening, which was completed in 1975, projected major traffic increases, but traffic actually declined.

“A more accurate, honest assessment of project benefits and costs has found the benefit-to-cost ratio for the proposed project to be less than 5 percent of that alleged by the Corps,” said John Williams, who headed Gilchrest’s review panel. “Analysis of the data shows that the C&D deepening, as well as the other projects to enlarge the Port of Baltimore’s northern approach channel, are not worth either their financial or environmental expense.”

The report comes as the Corps battles allegations that it manipulated studies to justify higher spending on water projects. Corps officials, who have denied any wrongdoing, issued a statement saying they try to pursue projects that are good for the environment and taxpayers.

“Our project development process ensures that divergent and competing interests are heard. We believe our judgments are sound and that we present balanced recommendations that are unbiased and in the public interest,” the statement said.

The groups used several criteria in compiling a list of what they consider the 10 most wasteful projects and 15 other unnecessary initiatives, including cost to taxpayers, impact on the environment and violations of federal law or Corps policies.

Among other projects on the list were four Snake River dams in Washington; plans to deepen 103 miles of the Columbia River between Portland, OR, and Astoria, OR; a series of irrigation projects in Arkansas; and an expansion of several upper Mississippi River locks and dams in five Midwestern states.

VA slow-growth organization rapidly increasing membership

For a slow-growth group, Voters to Stop Sprawl is sure growing quickly.

Hoping to repeat its success in electing anti-sprawl candidates in Virginia’s Loudoun County, Voters to Stop Sprawl is opening new chapters in Fredericksburg and Stafford, Spotsylvania and King George counties.

Other new chapters have already opened in Prince William and Warren counties. “Our quality of life is going down the toilet,” Thomas Savage, a Fredericksburg lawyer who has helped expand the organization, told the Washington Post.

The population boom in northern Virginia and along the Interstate 95 corridor has jammed school classrooms, crowded roads and caused property taxes to shoot up. A spokeswoman for the region’s builders countered that growth is inevitable when the economy is hot.

“Builders are a service industry responding to a need,” said Karen Roberts, legislative coordinator of the Fredericksburg-Area Builders Association. “Some of these counties are doing everything they can to attract new businesses, but that is what causes growth. People need a place to live.”

The slow-growth activists had a kickoff meeting in March and are filing papers with the Virginia Board of Elections to register as a political action committee that would donate money to the campaigns of candidates who pledge to fight sprawl.

Loudoun County activists raised $100,000 to help the campaigns of slow-growth candidates, who took over the board of supervisors in November’s elections.

The new chapters also want to take on the builders and developers who have been some of the biggest contributors to Virginia politicians. They plan to release report cards on whether elected officials vote to promote or slow sprawl.

“What we’re intending to do is change the nature of politics in Virginia,” said Joseph Maio, founder of Voters to Stop Sprawl. They have a tough fight. As of early March, the new chapters had $300 in the bank.

Bill requiring labeling of foreign crab meat dies

A legislative effort to stop local businesses from slapping a “Maryland-style” label on a box of frozen crab cakes died in a House committee.

The House Environmental Matters Committee voted 20-1 to kill a bill that would have required seafood giants like Phillips Foods Inc. to name the country of origin on products made with processed crab.

Imported crabs have taken over nearly three-quarters of the domestic crab market over the past five years. Crab meat from 58 countries is imported into the United States, with Indonesia and Thailand supplying the bulk, threatening local watermen who depend on the Chesapeake Bay for their livelihood.

But lawmakers felt it would be burdensome to require companies to label crab meat that may be a mixture of meat from several countries, said Robert Baldwin, R-Anne Arundel. He also said he didn’t believe that consumers expected all crab meat to come from the Chesapeake Bay.

Under current law, packages of imported raw crab meat are labeled with the country of origin. But no labeling is required for imported crab meat that is processed in the United States.