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Friday, May 18th, 2012

Montezuma farmers approved for land preservation program

By Shelley Grieshop
MONTEZUMA - County and township officials this week gave unanimous approval to a plan by three families to preserve more than 500 acres of farmland for the next 10 years.
The applications from the Franklin Township farmers for the Agricultural Security Areas program were approved Thursday by the Mercer County Commissioners and Wednesday by Franklin Township Trustees. The green light from local officials establishes the ASA application, said Amanda Wischmeyer, spokeswoman for the West Central Ohio Land Conservancy - the agency helping the landowners secure the designation.
"The county commissioners are then required to send a copy of the resolution to the director of agriculture, director of Ohio Department of Transportation, the superintendent of each school within the ASA, the county engineer and the county auditor," she said.
  Seeking the ASA status for their land are Montezuma-area residents John and Mary Schwieterman, Michael and Sandra Chrisman and Ken and Carol Schmitmeyer.
The program gives property owners with more than 500 acres of contiguous farmland a decade of protection from development such as the construction of new roads and sewer lines. No compensation is received, but landowners can qualify for tax abatements on farm-related structures or fixtures.
At a public hearing on the issue April 24, officials read a letter of concern from county engineer Jim Wiechart, who asked if the ASA designation could bar the county from receiving grants for road improvements along Clover Four and Guadalupe roads, which border the 512 acres in question.
Officials noted the county retains a 30-foot right-of-way between the land and the center of the road for general infrastructure work. They admitted that extensive construction could require easements into portions of the land targeted for preservation; they vowed to investigate the matter further.
On May 2, commissioners received a letter from Amanda Bennett of the Ohio Department of Agriculture that stated the ASA only restricts the creation of new roads, not improvements to existing ones.
"We can work on the roads if we're just improving an existing road," county commissioner Bob Nuding reiterated after Bennett's letter was read aloud Thursday.
Wiechart told the newspaper he is satisfied the ASA won't affect any grants received or projects that may arise during the 10-year period.
"The commissioners office did follow up on the concerns I had," he said. "The interpretation of the law the board received puts me more at ease as it relates to the roads in the area."
The three local ASA applications are the first submitted in the WCOLC region, which includes Mercer, Auglaize, Van Wert, Putnam, Allen, Hancock and Hardin counties.
The Schmitmeyers reportedly also are seeking enrollment in the competitive Agricultural Easement Purchase Program, which pays landowners to indefinitely preserve their land solely for agricultural use. The ASA approval will give the Schmitmeyers points toward acceptance into the AEPP, Wischmeyer has said.
Last year, Franklin Township residents Dave and Lois Schwieterman became the first in the county to gain acceptance into the AEPP. They were paid $122,641 to enroll 76 acres of their farmland.
County commissioners consistently have supported programs aimed at protecting farmland. The latest figures from ODA (2010) show Mercer County has 1,290 farms with 293,000 acres.
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