York County floats possible tax hike to fund land protection

Lindsey O'Laughlin
York Dispatch
York County is asking for the public's opinion on open spaces and if more land should be protected.
Thursday, August 29, 2019.
John A. Pavoncello photo

York County officials are mulling a possible tax hike to pay for the underfunded land protection program, but officials want to hear from residents before they make a decision.

The county launched an anonymous online survey Wednesday, Aug. 28, at yorkopenspace.org to gauge whether land protection is important enough to residents to justify raising taxes.

"That would play a major factor in the discussion about how to pay for this," county spokesman Mark Walters said.

Depending on the survey results, it's possible the commissioners will consider a proposal for the 2020 budget, but it's not likely. And there's no rush to push something through before the new board of commissioners takes over in January, Walters said.

It's too soon to know how much of a millage rate increase would be required, he said.

The county doesn't have a set amount budgeted annually for land protection, Walters said, but the costs vary depending on the type of land and the agency that's buying the land.

The York County Agricultural Land Preservation Program pays about $2,700 to $2,900 per acre and focuses on investment in the agricultural economy, Walters said.

The average cost for the Farm and Natural Lands Trust to acquire property is $280 per acre, said Sean Kenny, executive director of the Farm and Natural Lands Trust of York County, in a statement.

Costs are much lower for the trust for several reasons.

For one thing, 75% of the trust's 11,000 preserved acres were donated in exchange for a tax credit and didn't cost any money, Kenny stated.

More:Nearly 1,000 acres of wilderness in York County to become nature preserve

The trust also preserves woodlands, wetlands and other types of land that aren't economically valuable, either for agriculture or development, he stated, so the cost is lower.

The survey will be open through Friday, Sept. 20.

Not reaching the goal: The county's comprehensive plan dictates that 2,500 acres, or about 0.4% of the county's total land area, should be protected from development annually.

That's about four square miles.

After adopting the Open Space and Greenways Plan in December 2006, the county was meeting the annual land protection goal, said Wade Gobrecht, assistant director of the York County Planning Commission.

But in 2009, when York County began to feel the impact of the Great Recession, the funding dried up and the annual preserved acreage decreased from 2,500 acres to about 1,000 acres, Gobrecht said.

For the past few years specifically, the county has preserved about 1,100 to 1,400 acres each year, Gobrecht said.

Presently, about 12% of county land, equal to about 70,000 acres or 109 square miles, is considered protected open space. That number includes county and state parks, state game lands, privately owned farms and other areas deemed to have aesthetic, ecological and cultural value.

Over the next 30 years, county officials hope to add an additional 85,000 acres, or 132 square miles, to the county's protected open space.

The added 85,000 acres would equal about 14.5% of the county's overall land area, for a total of about 155,000 acres of protected land.

The goal is within reach if the county meets its annual 2,500-acre requirement.

"We realize that there is a need for growth and development, but balance is a key," Gobrecht said. "Just as we plan for growth and development, we also have to plan to protect our natural resources."

More:York County Parks: August's free programs feature bats, butterflies

The reason for preservation: Having open space and undeveloped land provides environmental, economic and societal benefits, Gobrecht said.

Preserving farmland maintains the county's agricultural heritage, keeps agriculture-based businesses from moving out of the area and allows family farms to remain in operation.

And allowing natural lands to thrive untouched leads to cleaner air and water and preserves wildlife habitats.

"It plays a big role in the quality of life of all the residents," Gobrecht said.

The land protection survey is a collaborative project of the County of York, the York County Planning Commission, York County Parks, the Agricultural Land Preservation Board, the York County Conservation District and the Farm and Natural Lands Trust of York County.

To take the survey and see an interactive map showing the areas where land has already been preserved, visit yorkopenspace.org.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to correctly attribute the information about the York County Agricultural Land Preservation Program. The source was Mark Walters.