O   ne thing guaranteed to drive me to distraction is watching a perfectly good piece of farm land being turned into a strip mall, a residential development, a shopping center or anything requiring large expanses of land to be covered by macadam.

I hate it.

I consider it a serious waste of perfectly good open space.

Since I've lived in York County my whole life, I recall with clarity when pasture land and wooded lots used to ring most towns and make up a substantial part of most municipalities.

And now, 40 years later, most of those areas have been converted to commercial or residential use.

It got so bad at one point I became concerned that my children and their children would be facing a life spent in an environment where the only green spaces might be residential lawns, golf courses and cemeteries, with a few parks sprinkled in for good luck.

I hated the thought of it.

But then the York County Agricultural Land Preservation Board became reality -- about 22 years ago. Its mission hit home with me right from the start -- protect York County's agricultural resources through the preservation of viable farm land.

Farm land, in other words, that could easily be used for other purposes -- malls, residential development, shopping centers, commercial property, etc.

Since 1990, the farm land preservation program has saved more than 38,000 acres and 246 farms in York County from development.

It hasn't come cheap, however, since it's cost county taxpayers about $17 million to make that happen.

Then I read a story in Friday's York Dispatch that raised a question in my mind about the farm land preservation program.

A York County couple -- Casey B. and Sally M. Barnes -- has a property in York Township that sits on 35 acres. It's an idyllic setting, not necessarily one you'd think of in terms of agriculture because there are no pigs, cows or chickens and they grow no crops there.

The land is mostly used for pasture and hay, where thoroughbred horses graze at their leisure. And, of course, the Barneses live there.

To them, it's a paradise. It's unspoiled. It's beautiful. They love living there.

And they wanted to donate the land to York County as a way of preserving it -- that's how I read it. Mighty generous of them, I thought.

But right away, I wondered who was going to pay property taxes on the land once it passed out of the Barneses' hands. Because I'm all for land preservation, but I'm not keen on converting half of York County into a no-pay-tax zone, similar to York City, for example, where government buildings and churches take a significant percentage of properties off the tax rolls.

So I called York County President Commissioner Steve Chronister and asked him the question: "Once it's in the county's hands, who's paying the property taxes?"

And he didn't know the answer.

Call Patty McCandless, he said. McCandless is the program director for the county's agricultural land preservation program. "She'll have the answer for you."

So I called. And she did.

As it turns out, there's no need for me or anyone else to worry about who's paying the property taxes on this piece of land or any property included in the agricultural land preservation program. Property taxes are now and will always be paid by the owners of the property, whoever that might be.

And it'll never be the county.

That's because the county is buying an easement, not the property itself, McCandless explained. And in the Barneses' situation, they donated the easement to the county, not the property. No money changed hands.

She explained it this way: "Look at the deed on any property as a bundle of rights. All we're buying is one easement that will control the privilege of use, preventing the property from being used for anything other than agriculture. The property will never come off the tax rolls. It will always be privately owned, and all future owners will be required to abide by the easement."

That was good news to my ears.

It gives me hope that future generations of York countians won't have to live in a sea of concrete, bricks and macadam.

So I'm pleased to give a public thank you to the Barneses. As a life-long resident of York County, one who actually sees value in open land and just about anything green, I appreciate their generosity.

Columns by Larry A. Hicks, Dispatch columnist, run Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. E-mail: lhicks@yorkdispatch.com.