Lehigh Valley

Little progress made in preserving farmland in Lehigh County

Little progress in preserving farmland; WFMZ's Bo Koltnow reports

An iconic Lehigh Valley landscape is in a fight for survival. The Lehigh Valley Planning Commission recommended for smart, sustainable growth 25 percent of Lehigh County land be preserved.

A decade later, however, little progress has been made. Now, there seems to be public push to do more.

"It's important to have large blocks of protected farmland. You need to have a critical mass to maintain a good agricultural economy," said Jeff Zehr, director of Lehigh County's Farmland Preservation program.

But a changing economy is changing area horizons.

"Development seems to be outpacing farmland preservation," said Julie Thomases of RenewLV, a local advocacy group.

Only nine percent of Lehigh County is preserved, and 2.3 square miles of farmland is lost each year to development, according to RenewLV.

Northampton County is at 1.9 square miles, and has only five percent preserved.

"Development is a powerful tool. It's true, but we are seeing reaction to that in the interest for farmland preservation," added Joyce Marin, also of RenewLV.

A recent poll showed 94 percent of Lehigh Valley residents support increased farmland preservation, with 80 percent of those willing to pay at least a $10 tax to do it.

Currently, 74 farms in Lehigh County are on a wait list for farmland preservation.

"Those 74 farms are worth about $18 million right now," said Lehigh County Executive Tom Muller.

Muller said, over the past several years, the county's farmland preservation fund has been underfunded, He wants the county to take out a bond to change that.

A vote is expected Wednesday. It would restore farmland preservation funding to $2 million per year over the next three years.

"This is something that is for the future not for today. We pay it out over time I don't see anything wrong with that," he said.

The majority of commissioners we reached out to are in favor of a bond, however Commissioner Michael Schware isn't one of them.

"Problem I see in the way we do it now it, we are asking the county to solve a problem that in a low of ways municipalities are causing," Schware said.

Muller said a minimum amount in the farmland pot is needed to get matching state funds. RenewLV is hoping its study is the seed that grows into elected support.

"I think that gives vertebrae to our elected officials that now at the local and county level it's time to move to action," Marin added.


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