Special Report: The Success of Oconee County and the Challenges of Implementing USDA Agricultural Land Easements in Georgia
This post is authored by Tad Brown, Laura German, Arundhati Jagadish, Dan Read, Jacob Weger, and Kyle Williams with Levi Van Sant, Lexi Pope, and Emily Urban. To read more on land justice, check out the book Land Justice: Re-imagining Land, Food, and the Commons in the United States.
Staying the loss of farmland to real estate development requires conserving farms beyond the tenure of current landowners. Conservation easements provide one way to achieve this goal. While easements can be negotiated among private actors, the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), under the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), supports conservation easements on agricultural land by providing 50 percent of the value of the easement. However, a local match of 25 percent of the value is required. Some states earmark money for land conservation that can be used to meet this match requirement; Georgia currently does not. In this article, we explore how a county-level tax program has provided a solution to the problem of matching funds for the federal Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP). Based on interviews with government officials and local residents, we examine the history of this program in Oconee County, Georgia, arguing that its success there is due to a unique confluence of factors, and has been achieved despite substantial hurdles. We conclude that expanding the program to other Georgia counties may require Georgia to (re)establish a dedicated conservation fund or the USDA to revisit the program requirements.
The Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP)
ACEP encompasses two programs: Agricultural Land Easements (ACEP-ALE) and Wetland Reserve Easements (ACEP-WRE). The purpose of ACEP-ALE is to protect privately-owned farmland and ranchland from conversion to non-agricultural land uses through permanent conservation easements. The program allows landowners to apply to the NRCS to fund an easement that will ensure their land remains available for agricultural production in perpetuity, even after they stop farming or need to sell their land.
To set the value, an appraiser determines the difference in a property’s fair market value before and after the easement. Program rules specify that this price, the easement value, must be split between the NRCS (50%), the landowner (25-45%), and an eligible third party (5-25%), such as a land trust or other local entity that is not related to the landowner. The landowner and third party tend to split their contributions evenly (25% and 25%), and the owner may take his or her contribution as a tax deduction.
ACEP-WRE supports easements in much the same way, but targets critical wetland areas and does not require a landowner donation or a third-party cash match. Instead, the NRCS contributes 100 percent of the easement value for the purchase of conservation easements on wetlands, and the NRCS holds the easement instead of relying on an eligible third party. Of the $4.8 million dollars of federal money allocated to ACEP programming in Georgia in 2014, $4.2 million was put towards ACEP-WRE, with the remaining balance going to ACEP-ALE.
Qualifying for an ACEP-ALE easement in Georgia involves meeting a set of federal eligibility requirements, followed by a competitive process in which a parcel’s rank is determined through multiple criteria. The competitive process may then initiate at county or state levels. Oconee County has established a selection process through a local working group to provide oversight, determining which parcels are put forward to NRCS. Depending on available funds, the county forwards one or more of the highest-ranking parcels for consideration to the state office of the NRCS.
A competitive ranking rubric guides the selection process for ACEP-ALE in Georgia. At least 50 percent of the ranking factors must be based on the national criteria, which evaluate the suitability of both the county and the parcel. The former emphasize the degree of development pressure in the county and the latter emphasize the parcel’s size, its productive potential (e.g. soil quality), its historical significance, and its proximity to other protected land or agricultural operations and infrastructure. The state-level criteria also include consistency with program aims, the parcel’s environmental sensitivity or unique natural and cultural features, written assurance of the 25 percent cash match, an established farm business plan, and a conservation plan addressing identified resource concerns. Thus, under these criteria, farmers with large historic parcels containing good soil are likely to rank higher.
ACEP-ALE In Oconee County
Oconee County hosts the only farmland protection program that has consistently funded ACEP-ALE in Georgia. In 1998, a committee of volunteer members from Oconee’s agricultural community formed the Oconee County Partnership for Farmland Protection (OCPFP) to help conserve working farms in the county and forestall loss of farmland to residential and commercial development. These individuals provided the initiative and dedication to find a suitable model to protect the county’s rural character, which they found in the NRCS Farm and Ranchland Protection Program (FRPP), the forerunner to ACEP-ALE. The third-party match was met initially through state level programs, with the first farm protected in 2004. The OCPFP oversaw the local selection process, while the Athens Land Trust drafted and held the easements. Former Governor Sonny Perdue’s administration supported subsequent easements through the Georgia Land Conservation Program, initiated in 2005. That program was since stripped of its funding, and now offers loans rather than grants—threatening the viability of Georgia land protection initiatives.
OCPFP struggled to identify an alternative source of local match funding, yet found a creative option with Georgia’s Special-Purpose Local-Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) program, a 1 percent local sales tax normally used for large capital outlay projects like infrastructure. While farmland protection is not explicitly mentioned in SPLOST bylaws, county Boards of Commissioners have a large degree of discretion to define what forms of infrastructure qualify. Funding of farmland protection as “green infrastructure,” however, requires the political support of the Commission and the citizenry, who must ultimately approve the SPLOST allocations through a referendum process once every 5 or 6 years. The Oconee County Commission resisted the idea initially, which some of those we interviewed believed could be due to the fact that developers provide financial support to commissioners during re-election campaigns. Farmland protection ultimately was included on the SPLOST referendum, largely due to the persistence of one of its key proponents.
The Commission now has a more favorable view, given widespread citizen support and the role agricultural conservation plays in getting higher-priority projects approved in the referendum. As stated by one interviewee with longstanding involvement in the program, “Farmland protection is one of the feel-good things and so they [the citizens] vote for SPLOST even if they don’t care about the roads and the sewer.” Farmland protection was allocated 1.0582% of total SPLOST funds in Oconee County in the 2014 SPLOST referendum, or $500,000, the same amount as the first SPLOST allocations for farmland protection in 2009 (Board of Commissioners 2014). Since that time, SPLOST has provided the 25 percent cash match for farmland conservation in Oconee County, helping purchase conservation easements on seven farms for a total of 499 acres protected.
Prospects for Expanding ACEP-ALE to Other Georgia Counties
Given the successful efforts in Oconee County, one must ask why more Georgia counties are not participating in ACEP-ALE. The cash match and the effort required to get the county government to support SPLOST funding of farmland conservation are the major stumbling blocks. While the presence of the SPLOST program in Georgia provides an opportunity for addressing the financial barrier to program expansion, in practice only one other Georgia county (Carroll) has even attempted to initiate a farmland protection program using SPLOST. After protecting a few farms, Carroll County’s program was stalled for several years—despite ample funding—reportedly due to the reported resistance from several county commissioners. They have recently re-opened the call for applications for the fiscal year of 2016.
A number of factors seem to have contributed to the success observed in Oconee County. Due largely to locational factors, the demographic profile of Oconee County is far from average for a rural county in Georgia (See Table 1). Oconee County is bordered by seven other counties, including Athens-Clarke County, which houses the University of Georgia (UGA). Oconee County is relatively wealthy, due in part to its high-performing public schools and ability to attract families who have the financial means to choose their place of residence. The county is also highly-educated when compared to other rural counties in Georgia. The citizens’ high level of education likely made them better equipped to navigate the political and bureaucratic processes necessary to implement agricultural easements.
For instance, many of the original OCPFP members were either educated at, or employed by the University of Georgia, and the program’s most vocal proponent is a retired UGA professor. Second, the proximity to the University of Georgia attracted commercial and residential development across the county border into Oconee and motivated farmers and citizens to mobilize and protect their farms from spillover development. Third, a critical mass of citizens committed to protecting the rural character of the county and a well-organized farming community provided the necessary support for achieving the allocation of 1 percent of SPLOST revenues for farmland protection. In both Oconee and Carroll counties, a local champion shouldered the effort to push the program through the bureaucratic hurdles (raise awareness, lobby commissioners, etc.). As framed by a member of the county selection committee, “This is why we and Carroll County have it and everyone else doesn’t. We had someone who was willing to go out on the gangplank at every meeting.”
Table 1. Oconee County demographic profile
|Factors||Oconee County||Average for GA Counties|
|Population density (people per sq. mi., 2010)||178.0||193.6|
|Percent below poverty line (2007-2011)||8.2%||20.6%|
|High school graduate or higher (ages 25+, 2009-2013)||91.3%||84.7%|
|Median household income (2012)||$75,532||$39,548|
|Number of farms (2012)||375||265.8|
|Farm size (average in acres, 2012)||121||239.2|
|Land in Farms (acres, 2012)||45,285||60,508.4|
|SPLOST Fund (2011)||$5,363,000||$7,357,200|
Adapted from: http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/13/13219.html and http://georgiastats.uga.edu/counties/219.pdf (accessed February 3, 2016)
We conclude that Oconee County’s history in accessing federal money for farmland conservation is a testament to the commitment of that community, but also serves to highlight the very sizeable barriers to protecting farms with ACEP-ALE. The required cash match is the primary constraint, as suggested by the comparative achievements of ALE and WRE programs in Georgia in 2014: one 51-acre agricultural land easement as compared to nine wetland reserve easements totaling 3,046 acres. By not taking into account how the program design limits access, ACEP-ALE may be destined to fail except in the most privileged counties.
Expanding ACEP-ALE into other Georgia counties poses many challenges under current program rules. Poorer counties are less likely to have features that contribute to program success: a sizeable tax base, a highly educated citizenry, and support for farmland protection over economic development. USDA’s efforts to expand program participation among historically disadvantaged and minority farmers are thus likely to see little success in most Georgia counties. The cash match is a requirement few rural communities can afford, and while SPLOST presents an alternative funding source given the lack of a suitable state conservation fund, the political leverage needed to achieve even a 1 percent funding commitment is significant. One possible way forward, as already instituted in the ACEP-WRE counterpart, would be to allocate federal funding for 75 to 100 percent of the easement value. In addition, finding ways to reconcile program rules—including the ranking criteria—with diverse local values and rural realities is necessary if farmland conservation in Georgia is going to address the needs of all of its constituencies.
Board of Commissioners. (2014) 2015 SPLOST Project Allocations. http://www.oconeecounty.com/images/finance/SPLOST/splost2015projectallocations.pdf