BETHLEHEM — The Town Board will be voting to approve a resolution to create the Farms and Forests Fund at its Sept. 25 meeting.
The new fund would allow the town to purchase local agricultural easements and their development value from any interested landowners. While the land would still remain privately owned and can continue to be farmed, it would prevent it from being redeveloped into housing; the landowner can use the money to invest in operating that farm or their retirement, for example.
“The fund would allow us to participate in a purchase of the easement and to partner with a conservation organization should they look to help with conserving an agricultural easement, and it would also establish a funding for local match for federal or state grants,” said Robert Leslie, the town’s Planning Division director. He previously spoke about the Farms and Forests Fund at the Sept. 11 Town Board meeting. “It would also allow us to use these funds for land appraisals, title searches and land surveys — all those components of a land transaction that are involved in an agricultural easement or land purchase.”
He added that each easement is different and tailored to the landowner’s needs and goals.
Leslie brought up how the town already has two land protection options for interested landowners: the Term Conservation Easement Program and the Parkland Set Aside Fund. The former allows a landowner to forgo development for at least 15 years to perpetuity and they can receive a property tax break where they could save more money if the easement period is longer. The latter generates revenue from a fee on new residential developments but this applies only for parks, park equipment or parks planning; it cannot be used for active farms and working forests.
This led to the Farms and Forests Fund as a third option to continue addressing growing development in town. It would allow the town to partner with local non-profit land conservation organizations including the Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy, Open Space Institute and Scenic Hudson.
Connecting this with the larger townside discussion on land conservation and open space protection, Town Supervisor David VanLuven had initially proposed this fund during his State of the Town Address back in January. “It is vital for our community to step up and work with interested landowners to keep farms, forests and fields as part of Bethlehem,” he said. “After the Address, we worked to find different ways to provide revenue for the fund.”
Regarding funding, according to submitted town documents, the Town “Comptroller shall deposit into the Farms and Forests Fund unassigned funds in the General Operating Fund, based on the fund balance as a percentage of the most recent budget.” It will use a formula, as shown in the table below.
“We have a General Fund and if we finish the end of the year above what we budgeted for the year, that’s a surplus,” VanLuven explained. “If that surplus is 20 percent, then nothing goes to the Farms and Forests Fund. If it’s 21 percent over, then half of that extra 1 percent will go into Farms and Forests Fund and the other half goes to the Capital Reserve Fund. If it is 22 percent over, it will all go to the Capital Reserve Fund and nothing extra for the Farms and Forests Fund, but [the latter will] still retain the 0.5 percent amount it received from when it was over 21 percent. If it’s 23 percent over, it will now be 1 percent [0.5 plus 0.5 percent] put into the Farms and Forests Fund. It’s cumulative as you continue on.”
The town would also accept monetary donations from the public to the Farms and Forests Fund if they want to contribute but do not own large areas of land themselves.
Leslie said the money can accumulate over time, maybe a few years, so it can be enough to buy agricultural easements or purchase land outright. “If we were to apply this type of structure to the previous 2014-2018 Capital Reserve Fund, it’d have resulted today to over $580,000,” he said at the Sept. 11 meeting.
If the fund is approved, any interested landowner can submit an application to the town’s planning department which would receive assistance from planning department staff and be advised by the Conservation Easement Review Board.
The application would be evaluated on whether it would protect at least one of four conservation values: community, character; recreation and greenways; forests, fields and wildlife ecosystems; and natural water systems like streams, wetlands and the Hudson River.
After planning department staff look into additional funding sources like state or federal grants, a final recommendation by the CERB would be given to the Town Board to consider and make a decision.
Town Board member Dan Coffey expressed optimism that it can come into fruition and that residents can donate if they want. He wrote in a follow-up email that the town would not take title to the property so it would stay on the tax rolls.
Fellow Town Board member Jim Foster wondered if any of the fund’s accumulated money could be used for purposes outside the fund’s intentions.
Leslie said, “I don’t think there’s anything prohibiting the Town Board from moving that money out of the fund but be aware that should you move any money out that’s not in compliance with the purpose, it is subject to permissive referendum … So, residents could call out the board on that and challenge the board for using that money outside its purpose.”
Nevertheless, Town Board member Maureen Cunningham said at the Sept. 11 meeting, “I have to say Bethlehem does really face development challenges but we’ve really been innovative in our solutions and here we go again. Great job to have everyone involved and the Conservation Easement Review Board. I’m excited.”
“In summary, it provides more town land protection options for landowners and gives us a way for the entire community to participate in conservation,” Leslie concluded, adding that the resolution needs to outline the fund’s purpose, its funding structure and any allowable expenditures.
This is now available on the Town Board’s Sept. 25 agenda.