House Bill 441, sponsored by PA representative Curt Sonney, adds the construction of industrial wind turbines to the list of permitted exceptions to the approved agricultural uses of land currently protected as Farmland Preservation Areas. The bill passed the house on March 18th by a vote of 185 to 9 and goes on to the senate.
Executive Summary: Rather than explaining how constructing and operating industrial wind turbines fits into the otherwise heavily restricted activities permitted on farmlands preserved for agricultural use and where farmers have received taxpayer money to abide by those restrictions, Curt Sonney’s bill would allow wind turbine installations on those lands, something otherwise prohibited, justifying the changes simply by referring to previous exceptions.
Agricultural Security Areas
In Pennsylvania, farmers can band together with parcels totaling at least 250 acres and submit a petition to local supervisors to form an Agricultural Security Area (ASA) “which protects the farm against local ordinances and nuisance lawsuits that could affect normal farming activities.” Once formed, additional farmers can add their lands to the ASA if the parcel is at least 10 acres or is able to produce $2,000 annually from the sale of agricultural products.
Farmland Preservation Areas
If the total ASA is 500 acres or more individual farmers within the area can then ask to put their land into a Farmland Preservation Area. If approved, the state makes what is called an easement purchase, paying the farmers for conservation easements which are the development rights to the land, restricting its use for any purpose other than agricultural production.
What is the purpose of farmland preservation?
- To protect viable agricultural lands by acquiring agricultural conservation easements which prevent the development or improvement of the land for any purpose other than agricultural production.
- To encourage landowners to make a long-term commitment to agriculture by offering them financial incentives and security of land use.
- To protect normal farming operations in agricultural security areas from incompatible non farmland uses that may render farming impracticable.
- To protect normal farming operations from complaints of public nuisance against normal farming operations.
- To assure conservation of viable agricultural lands to protect the agricultural economy of this Commonwealth.
- To provide compensation to landowners in exchange for their relinquishment of the right to develop their private property.
- To maximize agricultural conservation easement purchase funds and protect the investment of taxpayers in agricultural conservation easements.
What happens when farmland is preserved under this program?
To accomplish those aims listed above, land owners have specific duties and restrictions placed upon them by Pennsylvania Code 138e, after all, their development rights have been sold to the Commonwealth in return for protection so they can continue farming. Section 241 of PA Code 138e outlines all of the deed clauses and they start out just as you would expect with reference to crops and livestock and clearly state no one “shall suffer, permit, or perform any activity on the subject land other than agricultural production.” Well, that sounds pretty clear.
Exceptions, there are always exceptions
Reading further you’ll find permitted exceptions to those strict guideline in paragraphs titled “Utilities” and “Mining,” none of which have anything to do with agricultural production.
Utilities – says rights-of-way may be granted for “the installation of, transportation of, or use of, lines for water,sewage, electric, telephone, coal by underground mining methods, gas, oil or oil products.”
Mining – allows “The granting of leases, assignments or other conveyances or the issuing of permits, licenses or other authorization for the exploration, development, storage or removal of coal by underground mining methods, oil and gas by the owner of the subject land or the owner of the underlying coal by underground mining methods, oil and gas or the owner of the rights to develop the underlying coal by underground mining methods, oil and gas, or the development of appurtenant facilities related to the removal of coal by underground mining methods, oil or gas development or activities incident to the removal or development of such coal, oil or gas.”
Allowing power lines, phone lines, gas, oil, water and sewer makes sense because it would have minimal impact on farming after installation is complete. On the other hand, underground coal mining might have a much larger impact on the land as well as on any farming done nearby if the mine is in active operation. Why coal mining is permitted on land preserved for farming is a bit puzzling, but adding another questionable exception, industrial wind turbines, to the permitted activities simply creates more confusion. Is this land preserved for agricultural use or not?
What is the motivation?
Representative Sonney specifically references the Utilities and Mining permissions noted above to justify introducing legislation to also allow wind turbines on preserved farmland, which really means, “if they can do that, then we can do this.”
Nowhere in his bill does he explain why he is promoting the installation of wind turbines, nowhere does he attempt to show the connection of wind turbines to agricultural production, all that he does is justify his new exception by pointing to earlier exceptions, a method of reasoning that could expand the definition of permitted activities to include almost anything.
If taxpayers are paying farmers in order to preserve their land, produce agricultural products and for relinquishing their right to otherwise develop their property, perhaps we would be better served by insisting that they do exactly that. In addition, the voters and taxpayers of Pennsylvania would be better served if our state legislators used their position to write helpful and meaningful legislation instead of looking for opportunities to propose amendments that change the intent of laws already in place.