Protecting Farmland with the Community Preservation Act - There’s a state program that can pay much of the cost!

by Bob Wagner, Hatfield CPC Chair, Coalition Steering Committee

April 12, 2013: For many CPA communities, protecting farmland is a popular use of CPA funds under the Open Space category. The Act defines Open Space as including, “land to protect existing and future well fields, aquifers and recharge areas, watershed land, agricultural land, grasslands, fields, forest land…”

Farmland is a critical economic, environmental and scenic resource in the Commonwealth. In recognition of this importance, the state has funded a farmland protection program since 1977. One of the first in the nation, the Agricultural Preservation Restriction Program (APR) managed by the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources has protected over 67,000 acres across the state. Like the many Purchase of Agricultural Conservation Easement Programs around the country, the APR program offers landowners the option to sell a permanent conservation restriction on their eligible farmland. The land subject to an APR remains in private hands, and of importance to many communities, it remains on the tax rolls and continues to be managed by the property owner.

CPA communities can partner with the APR program to protect local farmland. In fact, the state now requires a local match of up to as much as 20% of the cost of an APR. CPA funds could be an excellent source for this local match.

The local matching requirement is intended to promote a local commitment to agriculture and protecting farmland. To further encourage this commitment, the state will reduce the local match required if a community has taken certain actions to demonstrate its support for agriculture and farming. The local match can be reduced to as low as 5% if the community has, for example, adopted a Right to Farm By-Law, established an Agriculture Commission, or adopted zoning by-laws that conserve land for farming, such as cluster zoning or transfer of development rights.

One challenge of using CPA funds for matching APR projects is that the APR program has a year-round, rolling application procedure. Thus an APR project may be approved and ready for closing at any time during the year. Since all CPA projects must be approved by a community’s legislative body, there could be timing issues that might frustrate the use of CPA funds for the APR local match.

To avoid timing issues, some Community Preservation Committees recommend that the legislative body transfer CPA funds to the municipality’s Conservation Fund ahead of time. Not all communities have a Conservation Fund (authorized under Section 8c of Chapter 40), but for those that do, funds can be expended to acquire APRs without waiting for a Town Meeting vote. One point to be aware of: a letter from the Department of Revenue makes it clear that the rules of CPA need to follow the funding once it is transferred into a Conservation Fund.

Lastly, Section 12a of the CPA legislation requires that municipalities have ownership (or co-ownership) of any real property interests acquired with CPA funds. If CPA funds are used towards the purchase of an APR, and the state of Massachusetts will be the holder of that APR, the town should be listed as a co-holder.

If protecting farmland is important to your CPC, it will be critical to stay in touch with your community’s Agriculture Committee, Conservation Commission, any local land trusts in the area working on farmland protection projects, as well as the APR program’s representative for your region of the state to be aware of any possible local APR projects well in advance.

The growing popularity of local food and agriculture means that protecting farmland can be a very exciting, highly visible and rewarding project for CPA funding. Protecting farmland not only preserves open space, but also supports the local economic contributions of agriculture to communities, helping them to better plan for the public services associated with developing farmland.

CPA funds have been used to match the APR program in a number of communities, including Southwick, Acushnet, Amherst, Hadley, Whately and Northampton.

Bob Wagner is Chair of the Community Preservation Committee in Hatfield, a member of the Community Preservation Coalition Steering Committee, and Senior Policy and Program Advisor at American Farmland Trust.