Farmland Preservation Toolbox

There are numerous benefits to preserving farmland:

  • saving rural vistas and natural habitat
  • growing a local food economy
  • preserving water and air quality
  • mitigating increases in traffic congestion
  • controlling property taxes (cows don’t go to school)

The Assessment Report: Lehigh Valley Local Food Economy states that “the biggest challenge facing the Lehigh Valley local food economy is the loss of farmland.”


RenewLV recommends an “All the Above” approach for farmland preservation.   Included below are fifteen strategies to support farmland preservation.  These have been developed with the help of 125 stakeholders that met during RenewLV’s Save It or Pave It event (February 26) and with resources from the Pennsylvania Department of AgricultureRodale Institute, the Seed Farm, LVPC, and Lehigh and Northampton County Farmland Preservation offices.

Tools in the Toolbox

1. Agricultural Zoning – Agricultural zoning is a specialized form of zoning used by communities that seek to preserve their agricultural base. It reflects a community-wide policy that farmland is a valuable resource that should be preserved to ensure the continued production of agricultural commodities. The basic building block of an agricultural zoning scheme is an agricultural zone with regulations that strictly limit the construction of all buildings and structures unrelated to agricultural land uses and activities. Most often, an agricultural zone is part of the community’s overall zoning scheme.  The purpose of agricultural zoning is to protect farmland from incompatible uses that would adversely affect the long-term economic viability of the area within the region.  Agricultural has its limitations.


2. Agricultural Security Areas – Agricultural Security Areas (ASA) were designed to strengthen and protect agriculture in Pennsylvania.  Farmland owners, in cooperation with local governments, can establish agricultural security areas (ASA’s) in places where agriculture is the primary land use. An agricultural Security area protects land owner from: nuisance ordinances that inhibits regular and reasonable agricultural practices; against nuisance complaints; protects the landowner against condemnation by any government entity, by putting in place protections so that the property cannot be condemned for public use.


3. Purchase of Easements – A conservation easement is a deed restriction landowners voluntarily place on their property to protect resources such as productive agricultural land, ground and surface water, wildlife habitat, historic sites or scenic views. The Pennsylvania Agricultural Conservation Easement Purchase Program (ACEPP) is a voluntary program that enables county governments to protect active farmlands by purchasing agricultural conservation easements from willing landowners. (This is sometimes referred to as a purchase of development rights.) These easements limit the use of the farmland to activities compatible with agriculture while keeping the land in the landowner’s ownership and control. All but ten counties participate in the program.


4. Donating of Easements and the Tax Benefits – One of the most important incentives is the federal conservation tax deduction, which allows landowners to deduct all or part of the value of a donated easement from their taxable income.  In 2015, Congress made permanent the federal tax incentive for conservation easement donations, helping thousands of landowners conserve their land.  If you own land with important natural or historic resources, donating a voluntary conservation easement (also called conservation agreement) can be one of the smartest ways to conserve the land you love, while maintaining your private property rights and possibly realizing significant federal tax benefits. The conservation tax incentive:

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Regionally, the rate of farmland preservation is being outpaced by development.

5. The Use Of Leverage with Local, County and State Dollars Working Together – Incentivizes a municipality’s participation in the purchase of agricultural conservation easements.  It provides and incentive for the municipalities to partner with the county and state farmland preservation programs.


6. Act 4 – Act 4 provides a process for freezing the millage on open space properties.  It is “an act authorizing the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the local government units thereof to preserve, acquire or hold land for open space uses,” defining municipal corporation”, further providing for property acquired in fee simple and for local taxing options.


7. The Official Map – a combined map and ordinance designed to implement the goals and community vision set forth in the comprehensive plan.  It gives the township an opportunity to purchase farmland and inserts the township into conversations with a developer and land owner before development can occur.  It informs developers and property owners of municipal goals and development plans.  It is an effective negotiating tool for municipalities, helping to insure that development is compatible and supportive of public goals.

For more information on official maps, follow this link to the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources publication,  The Official Map: A Handbook for Preserving and Providing Public Lands and Facilities.

8. Transfer of Development Rights (TDR) –  a voluntary, incentive-based program that allows landowners to sell development rights from their land to a developer or other interested party who then can use these rights to increase the density of development at another designated location. TDR is a valuable smart growth tool that has already preserved hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland across the nation in return for promoting more efficient and economically viable communities.

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9. Transfer of Development Bank – a transfer development bank has three key roles:

  1. Facilitate the private TDR market by bridging the time gap between willing sellers and buyers of TDRs
  2. Act as a revolving fund for continued land protection through buying, holding, and selling TDRs (proceeds from TDR sales are used for future land protection)
  3. Catalyze city-county TDR agreements by strategically acquiring development rights from high priority conservation rural / resource lands in the County that are of compelling interest for specific cities to see protected

In addition to direct TDR sales, a TDR Bank can offer potential buyers options to buy TDRs.  In this way, developers can, with a minimal outlay of capital, lock in a certain number of TDRs at a certain price for a specified length of time.  A TDR Bank can also develop creative extended purchase and sale agreements with prospective buyers to ensure reduced developer risk and minimize up-front outlays of capital for TDR purchases.

Source: King County

Local strategies:

10. Referendums to raise local funding – This refers to Earned Income Tax (EIT) that can be levied by a municipality to raise funds for open space/farmland preservation.   The revenue can be generated in numerous ways: a bond referendum, or an EIT increase to raise funds for preservation efforts.

 11. Outright purchase by local municipality -This is when a municipality talks a proactive approach and purchases property and places a conservation easements on it with the purpose of reselling the property.

Moore Township has led the charge with their purchase of Sunny Slope Farm.  Supervisors voted to purchase the 39-acre farm that will be will be preserved through the Northampton County Farmland Preservation Bureau.

  • Moore Township Land Preservation webpage

12. Becoming a Conservation Investor : A conservation investor is a “mission-driven” real estate investor who wants to leave a legacy of preserved properties. He/she purchases property for its relevant natural attributes (farmland, wetlands, wildlands, steep slopes) and then puts conservation easements on the land. Conservation investors protect the properties in private ownership and receive the tax benefits (discussed above) associated with donating the easements.

Economics for Farmers and Economic Development Tools:

13. “Agritainment and Agritourism” – Many farms are taking advantage of their unique nostalgic, rural, local, family and outdoor appeal by developing destination attractions as additional, and often sole sources of new income. A farm destination for consumers is typically referred to as “agritainment” (agriculture plus entertainment) or agritourism when tourists make up a substantial part of the target market. Options range from such strategies as u-pick or pick-your-own, petting zoos, hay rides, children’s play areas, children’s discovery farms, corn mazes, pumpkin patches, seasonal and fall festivals, Halloween attractions, haunted attractions, school field trips, farm markets farm restaurants and milk and cheese creameries.

Offering experiential farm offerings in addition to the sale of products positions farms at the 4th level of economic value.

With an increasing consumer interest in locally and sustainably sourced foods and health, direct market farms have increased appeal. Often, there is opportunity to expand a direct market farm’s destination appeal beyond just the sale of food products by offering education tours, enrichment and special events, classes, tours and agritainment activities. For example, combining a goat creamery and some entertainment-type attractions would become goat-tainment. Offering tours of the entire process of producing cheese positions a farm as a enrichment destination experience.

The greatest opportunity for farms that want to become agritainment or agri-tourism destinations is to move everything they offer to customers higher up on what is referred to as the progression of economic value. The four levels of economic value are:

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Economic activity and the progression of economic value start with raw commodities

that are transformed into goods, which are then wrapped in services and finally transformed into experiences. Each level increases the total value to the customer, and accordingly, the total price the customer is willing to pay. Generally, price sensitivity decreases, profit margins increase and competition decreases as you move up the progression of economic value.

Source: White Hutchinson Leisure & Learning Group

14.  How to Profit in the Marketplace by Transitioning to Organic and the Next  Generation Farmers: Preserving farms by growing new farmers – Rodale Institute will help farmers to transition to organic with numerous educational programs.  Here is a link to their 15-hour online course which informs farmers about the requirements for National Organic Standards.  Rodale Institute nonprofit dedicated to pioneering organic farming through research and outreach.

15. Farms as Businesses– Farms are businesses. Farms contribute to the local economy.  Through their AgConnect program, the Chester County Economic Development Council developed a network of farmers, business owners, and service providers which connect farmers to business resources, training, and financing to grow business and promote smart agricultural economic development.  Visit their website to learn more about AgConnect, a regional private-public partnership that provides services to Berks, Bucks, Chester, Delaware, Montgomery and Philadelphia Counties here.

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Moving Ideas to Action

4th Annual Summit for Smart Growth and Sustainable Communities
"Our Towns, Our Farms, Our Future"

Our 4th Annual Summit for Smart Growth was a huge success! We focused on social entrepreneurship and how to make sustainability legal. Check out the coverage of our event by The Morning Call here

SoCap and Ben Price of CELDF.

Last year on December 9th, 2016, almost 200 community leaders and concerned citizens gathered at the Renaissance Hotel in Allentown for RenewLV's fourth annual Summit for Smart Growth and Sustainable Communities to discuss social entrepreneurship and how to make sustainability legal. We also held table discussions that covered topics such as strategies for land preservation, community revitalization and municipal cooperation.

At last year's Summit, we asked the questions:

•How do you balance what appears to be competing interests: Doing good and making money?

•How does overbearing local, state or federal laws prevent us from preserving quality of life and/or supporting smart growth?

•How do we achieve local self-determination without giving up some of the laudable goals of regulations intended to provide quality of life and prosperity for all?

A big thank-you to all of the Summit for Smart Growth sponsors who contributed to last year's discussion! You made this event possible!

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Report Highlights Fiscal Benefits of Smart Growth Renew Lehigh Valley has often noted the benefits of smart growth development for municipalities, including cost savings. A new report by Smart Growth America details the benefits for municipalities realized through smart growth development. Read the full report here.

Watch the Envision Lehigh Valley Virtual Meeting

RenewLV and our partners at the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission, the City of Allentown, the City of Bethlehem, and the City of Easton held a one-of-a-kind virtual public meeting for Envision Lehigh Valley. 100 participants logged in through a live video feed, Facebook, Twitter, and live chat. Missed the meeting? View the full recording on YouTube here