BALLSTON SPA, N.Y. >> Agriculture is an estimated $100 million industry in Saratoga County that supports 1,500 jobs.
But to keep farming viable, a more concerted effort is needed to protect the land farmers use against ongoing commercial and residential development.
About two dozen people turned out recently for a Farmland Conservation Options workshop to learn about the sale of development rights and whether are such programs are right for them.
“You give a gift to your community by conserving your land,” said Maria Trabka, Saratoga PLAN executive director. “It’s a way to keep your land, but get some equity out of it, too.
“Our lives depend upon farmland, especially here in Saratoga County where we have a growing population.”
PLAN (Preserving Land and Nature) is a non-profit Saratoga Springs-based land trust that helps property owners apply for state funding for the sale of development rights. To date, more than 3,450 acres of land has been conserved in Saratoga County and Trabka said about $30 million is expected to be available from the state in 2018 to continue such efforts across New York.
Grants are awarded competitively, based on the strength of each application.
Trabka, PLAN Conservation Director Mike Horn and Allison Hargrave of Saratoga County Planning Department outlined the rules, benefits and reasons for conservation easements during a presentation at Cornell Cooperative Extension offices in Ballston Spa.
“The primary purpose of agricultural conservation easements is to ensure that the land is used in a way that permits its ongoing use for farming and forestry,” Hargrave said.
The sale of development rights is a permanent, legal and binding agreement. The property can never be used for any type of commercial or residential development, only farm structures in designated areas.
People considering such steps must have their property appraised for its unrestricted value and agricultural value. The difference is the land’s development value.
For example, if land is worth $1.2 million and its ag value is $500,000, the development rights are worth $700,000.
Typically, the state provides 75 percent of this price, with the remainder matched by one of several local sources such as town or city government or private grants. Seven Saratoga County towns have completed or are in the process of completing farmland protection plans, and may apply directly to the state for land conservation funding. They are Charlton, Ballston, Malta, Stillwater, Milton, Moreau and Saratoga.
If no local match is available, the state may provide up to 87.5 percent of the total cost, with the land owner providing the remaining 12.5 percent.
Under the latter scenario, after transaction costs ($52,000), the land owners would get $658,000, which can be used however they want from farm improvements to a trip around the world.
The application and approval process takes about 18 months and more than 90 percent of applications are eventually approved, Trabka said.
In addition to having land appraised, it must also be tested for soil quality, one of the most heavily-weighted criteria state officials look at, as land must be able to support diverse agricultural interests. Dustin Lewis, of Saratoga County Soil & Water Conservation District, said his agency can help land owners with this process.
“New York State really wants any conserved farm to be a workable farm,” Horn said. “We think generations ahead, what might someone else want to do with this land?”
PLAN and county officials help people prepare applications for the sale of development rights. For information go to www.saratogaplan.org or call (518) 587-5554.