What do we mean by open space preservation? That’s a question that some residents here in Lower Macungie Township, where I live, are starting to ask. Lower Macungie has the dubious distinction of having been the fastest growing municipality in Pennsylvania for the decade from 2000 to 2010. In that decade, Lower Macungie's 22 square miles gained 11,413 new residents, a 59% increase from 2000. We now have about 31,000 residents.
Many current residents, whether they have lived here 5 years or 45 years, are lamenting the loss of so much of the farmland that had originally attracted them to this once rural area. So naturally, there has been talk of trying to get a coherent open space preservation policy established in Lower Macungie for quite some time. But when locals say Lower Macungie needs to preserve open space, what exactly does that mean?
To answer that question, I first have to explain what has happened to the local farm land over the past several decades. The problem with much of Lower Macungie's farmland is that, several decades ago, a significant portion of it was zoned to allow subdivision into residential lots with a minimum size of either 12,000 or 18,000 square feet. That zoning decision effectively opened the door for developers to begin offering farmers a sizable nest egg for their retirement in exchange for purchasing their farms.
So if we want to preserve open space, are we talking about competing with developers to buy these local farms? Not necessarily. Buying land outright is not really an efficient way for a municipality to preserve open space. Municipalities don't usually want to be in the farming business or the real estate management business. Instead, the most straightforward way to preserve open space is to find a buyer for the land owner's development rights. It could be the township. It could be the county. Or it could be a non-profit land trust organization. Generally, the cost of the development rights is simply the difference between how much a developer would pay for that farm and how much another farmer would pay to buy the land to continue farming it. And it could be a significant windfall for a self-employed farmer who needs to supplement meager retirement savings.
Buying development rights from land owners is a win-win. The farmer wins because he or she gets paid for selling a valuable but intangible portion of their farm. They can continue to farm their land and use it as they please. They may also pass it down to their children to continue the farming tradition. Severing the development rights simply makes the farm unmarketable to a developer. So the rest of the community wins, because one less farm will be lost to development and all of the traffic, stormwater runoff and school crowding associated with it.
In a later post, I'll explain how to fund purchase of development rights.