Steve Hudkins, extension agent for Portage County's branch of the Ohio State University Extension Service, presented a report of the Governor's Task Force on Ohio Farmland Preservation to the Kent Environmental Commission Tuesday.
Last summer, Gov. George Voinovich convened a task force to recommend ways to stem the loss of tens of thousands of acres of Ohio farmland every year to development. The task force was directed to look at trends, causes and consequences of farmland loss and recommend voluntary incentives to preserve farmland.
The task force consisted of 24 members, including farmers, builders, realtors, environmentalists and state representatives and senators from both political parties, including State Sen. Leigh Herington of Kent.
"I don't think the governor had any idea of the broad range of support for farmland preservation," he said, explaining that farmland loss affects not only rural areas but also cities, which are gaining an increased tax burden because people are moving from the city to the land that used to be rural.
Hudkins said even though Ohio is recognized as a good farming state, with more than half of its land classified as "prime farmland," or land best suited to the production of crops, it has more urban centers than any other state.
Between 1954 and 1992, he said, Ohio lost nearly a third of its farmland to development, and between 1995 and 1996, Ohio lost 100,000 acres of farmland _ double the size of Cleveland _ to development. Locally, Portage County loses 1,000 acres of farmland each year, he said.
Patterns of development are also part of the problem, Hudkins said, noting the trend toward large lots that he said are "too large to mow and too small for the cows."
"People are no longer content with the 100-by-100 foot lot," he said. "Now people want five acres."
The task force made 12 recommendations to Ohio Gov. George Voinovich in June, and so far, the governor has not acted on them, Hudkins said.
One of the options centers around ideas such as purchasing development rights and leasing development rights _ programs that would allow a farmer to sell or lease the right to develop his land in return for some sort of tax break.
Ohio Attorney General Betty Montgomery has recently ruled that state law allows such agreements for conservation but not for farming. Although the Ohio legislature is considering bills that would remove that loophole, he said, there is infighting in the Republican party about the best way to change the law.
Hudkins recommended that residents contact their state representative to voice their support for PDR's.
"There are so many diverse interests," he said. "It's a real challenge to bring development interests together to gain a common vision to move forward."
In other business, Kent Parks and Recreation Director John Idone addressed local park land preservation issues, and fielded questions from KEC members about a proposal to sell land near Plum Creek Park.
John Steinert, a local businessman, has asked the city to sell him the city's former water treatment facility on Mogadore Road so he can open a glassblowing school and gallery. The proposal has generated concern from the KEC's executive board, which is pushing for a long term lease instead of a sale because the city would be able to control the land in the future.
Idone said he is concerned about any plan that would involve the sale of the pond adjacent to the water plant but said the building itself has never been used by the parks board.
Interim City Manager William Lillich said he understands the KEC's concerns, and some kind of program to protect the park property is part of his negotiations with Steinert.
"We need to be sensitive to what we give up and how it would impact what's left," he said. "But we're also interested in an innovative and creative proposal to reuse a building the city would not realistically put any more into than what it would cost to raze it."
One member asked why the parks board didn't come up with a proposal for the building itself instead of waiting for a developer to do it, but Idone explained the department's resources are limited.
"Mr. Steinert is well-known in glassblowing circles both nationally and internationally," he said. "He could certainly do it a lot better than we ever could."