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Lehigh Valley

Lehigh County commissioners amend capital plan to support farmland preservation

Gaming revenue will be used in perpetuity to support farmland preservation.

By a vote of 8-1, Lehigh County Commissioners on Wednesday night approved an ordinance amending the county's 2016-2020 capital plan to include funding for agriculture conservation easements.

As amended, the ordinance will budget $2 million annually for agricultural preservation easements in 2017, 2018 and 2019 supported by $3 million in funding from the planned $18.4 million 2016 bond issue and $1.5 million from gaming revenue instead of money from the general operating budget. Gaming revenue will be used in perpetuity to support farmland preservation.

The bill was pulled from the June 22 meeting because of an absence and an impasse over how much money should be set aside for farmland preservation and where it would come from. One of the dissenting votes came from Commissioner Amanda Holt, who expressed concern about a divided borrowing plan and its potential effect on debt service payments.

By including farmland preservation in the bond, the money will be guaranteed for that purpose, said Commissioner Percy Dougherty, who supported the ordinance. With bond at rates under 2 percent, now is the time to act, he noted.

Dougherty also made it clear that the amendment was not to preserve open space but to help keep farmers in business.

The board's action was supported by farmers and residents of Lehigh County, who attended the meeting to urge the board to pass funding for agricultural preservation easements.

As of March, Lehigh County has preserved 267 farms, which together make up 21,700 acres. Those totals rank Lehigh fifth among all counties in the state. There are about 70 farms on the county's farmland preservation list, offering about 3,600 acres for preservation.

In related action, the board voted 8-1 on a resolution to signal its support of the of the administration's planned $18.6 million bond issue, which will be used to finance a number of capital projects.

Board President Brad Osborne said the amended bill was not designed to be perfect but was "designed to be passable. It's about doing the right thing for the citizens of Lehigh County."

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