What does Lancaster’s growth mean for farmland preservation?

Hourglass Lancaster

This article ran in the Summer 2021 issue of Hourglass Quarterly. View the full publication here. 

Lancaster County continues to lead the country in farmland preservation, with more than 115,000 acres preserved across 1,539 farms, or roughly 19% of the county’s land area. However population growth puts development pressure on farmland. We are currently losing 1,200 acres of farmland to development annually, and the Lancaster County Agricultural Preserve Board and Lancaster Farmland Trust have a combined backlog of 250 farmers who want to preserve their farms but are on a waiting list.

One challenge is government funding for farmland preservation, which in Lancaster County has declined significantly in the past two decades according to the recently released “State of Farmland Preservation in Lancaster County” report. Specifically, the county government’s investment in farmland preservation dropped 40% between 2010 and 2020, continuing a decline since funding peaked in 2001 at $16 million.

“Most of our municipalities are doing a good job with zoning, but we know zoning is temporary and can be changed,” said Karen Martynick, Executive Director of Lancaster Farmland Trust at Hourglass’s August First Friday Forum. “We recognize that with population growth, pressure on farmers will continue to increase. That doesn’t only mean farmland will be developed. But if development becomes scattered, and new people move next to farms that don’t like the smells, the dust, and the noise, or it becomes dangerous for farmers to be out on the road—all of those things put pressure on farmers and our agricultural land.”

Lancaster Farmland Trust recommends county officials devote $125 million to farmland preservation by 2030—about the total amount local officials allocated in the previous 37 years. That funding would support Lancaster Farmland Trust’s goal to double Lancaster’s acres preserved by 2040. That would account for more than half of all land in Lancaster County zoned for agriculture.

The report recommends various zoning and planning tools for township officials to use for farmland preservation. One, transfer of development rights (TDRs), is a program that allows farm owners to sell their development rights to a developer who can then use those rights to build elsewhere with some new privileges otherwise not permitted by zoning. That can be more density than otherwise allowed, or fewer stormwater management requirements, for instance. Caernarvon, Manheim, Penn, Warwick, West Hempfield and West Lampeter townships have all enacted transfer of development rights ordinances already.

Other recommendations for townships include agricultural zoning that limits how many homes or subdivisions can exist on each property. This precludes future owners from splitting up a farm into a new residential development.

The report also highlights Honey Brook Township in Chester County, where in 2005 voters approved a half-percent increase to a local income tax to fund preservation efforts. Lancaster Farmland Trust proposes a referendum to determine public support for a similar farmland preservation tax here in Lancaster County.

“We know that growth is coming and we know that we’re losing farmland, and at some point in the future those two are going to come together,” said Martynick. “If we’re not careful and don’t make the right decisions, we’re going to look around and say, ‘What happened? What happened to our farms?’”

Hourglass held a First Friday Forum in August 2021 on “The State of Farmland Preservation in Lancaster County” with Karen Martynick and Jeffrey Swinehart of Lancaster Farmland Trust. You can find a video of the conversation here.