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Overview of the Agricultural Conservation Easement (ACE) Program

How the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program was Established:

Act 43, the Agricultural Area Security Law (Act of June 30, 1981, P.L. 128, No. 43) (3 P.S. §§ 901-915) was enacted in 1981 to allow townships to establish Agricultural Security Areas (ASAs). An ASA conserves, protects, and encourages the development and improvement of agricultural lands for the production of food and other agricultural products. Agricultural Security Areas are regulated by 7 Pa. Code Chapter 138l., the Agricultural Security Area Program.

Act 43 was amended in 1989 to allow counties to create joint Agricultural Conservation Easement (ACE) Programs with the State to purchase agricultural conservation easements. The easements limit the land to agricultural production in perpetuity. ACE Programs are regulated by 7 Pa. Code Chapter 138e., the Agricultural Conservation Easement Purchase Program.

On August 3, 1989, the Berks County Board of Commissioners established the Berks County Agricultural Land Preservation Board by Resolution 393-89, on authority granted to them by Act 43, whose responsibility it is to administer the Berks County Agricultural Conservation Easement (ACE) Program according to Act 43 and 7 Pa. Code Chapter 138e. A copy of Resolution 393-89 is available upon request.

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Act 43: The Agricultural Security Area (ASA) Law

The intent of Act 43, the Agricultural Area Security Law, is to conserve, protect, and to encourage the development and improvement of agricultural lands for the production of food and other agricultural products. It is also to conserve and protect agricultural lands as valued natural and ecological resources that provide needed open space for clean air, as well as for aesthetic purposes.

Agriculture is under urban pressure, taking the form of scattered development and bringing conflicting land uses into juxtaposition, creating high costs for public services, and the stimulation of land speculation. When scattered development extends into good farm areas, ordinances inhibiting farming tend to follow, farm taxes rise, and hopes for speculative gains discourage investments in farm improvements. Agricultural lands are in jeopardy of being converted to non-agricultural uses. Certain of these lands constitute unique and irreplaceable land resources of statewide importance. It is the purpose of Act 43 to provide the means by which agricultural lands may be protected and enhanced as a viable segment of the economy, and as an economic and environmental resource of major importance.

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The Agricultural Security Area (ASA) Defined

Act 43 authorizes townships to create Agricultural Security Areas (ASAs) on a voluntary basis. Landowners are encouraged to enroll farmland in an ASA that offers three benefits: 1) Protection from condemnation or eminent domain; 2) Protection from local nuisance ordinances; and 3) Eligibility for the ACE Program.

Landowners with 10 acres or more may voluntarily petition their township to form an ASA. A minimum of 250 acres is needed to establish an ASA and a minimum of 500 acres is needed for that land enrolled in the ASA to be eligible for the ACE Program. Most townships in Berks County with an ASA have more than 500 acres enrolled. An ASA may be increased at any time. Landowners simply need to submit an enrollment form to the township office by certified mail, as it is important that the landowners can verify the date the application was submitted. In addition to the township’s responsibility to respond to enrollment forms, every seven years townships may review lands enrolled in ASA with the option of adding additional land, at the request of the landowners, or withdrawing land previously enrolled. ASA enrollment forms and supporting documentation may be obtained at the Berks County Agricultural Land Preservation Office.

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ACE Program Overview

The Berks County Agricultural Land Preservation Board oversees the implementation of the Berks County Agricultural Conservation Easement (ACE) Program through the staff of the Berks County Agricultural Land Preservation Office. The Berks County ACE Program is a funded largely by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the County of Berks to purchase agricultural conservation easements in perpetuity. Easements prevent the development of the lands for any other purpose other than agricultural production. Permanently preserving large clusters of farms helps ensure the future of agriculture in Berks County. Furthermore, it is the purpose of the Berks County ACE Program to:

1. Encourage landowners to make a long-term commitment to agriculture by offering them financial incentives and security of land use;

2. Protect normal farming operations in Agricultural Security Areas from incompatible non-farmland uses that may render farming impracticable;

3. Protect farming operations from complaints of public nuisance against normal farming operations;

4. Assure conservation of viable agricultural lands in order to protect the agricultural economy of this Commonwealth;

5. Provide compensation to landowners in exchange for their relinquishment of the right to develop their private property;

6. Maximize agricultural easement purchase funds and protect the investment of taxpayers in agricultural conservation easements; and

7. Encourage financial partnerships between the Federal, State, County, local governments, and non-profit entities in order to increase the funds available for agricultural conservation easement purchases.

The Berks County Planning Map identifies important farmland and has been submitted to the PA State Agricultural Land Preservation Board as part of the ACE Program. The map identifies municipalities within Berks County that have agricultural security areas, as well as identifies farmland of importance to the County Board that are designated as Agricultural Preservation.

Landowners submit applications to the Berks County Agricultural Land Preservation Office on a voluntary basis by December 31st of any given year. Applications must meet minimum criteria. Each year, beginning in January, all applications that meet the minimum criteria are numerically ranked according to the Land Evaluation and Site Assessment (LESA) ranking system. The ranking system evaluates soil quality and site assessment factors designed to evaluate development pressures, productivity of a farm, and the ability to create clusters of protected farmland. Applications are selected for the program based on the ranking order and the amount of available funding. Townships may participate along with the County and the State in the Berks County ACE Program.

Funding for the ACE Program is typically allocated on a yearly basis. The State and County compensate landowners at the settlement of the agricultural conservation easement based on appraisal values and maximum payments per acre. The easements are legal documents restricting the land to agricultural production and are recorded at the Berks County Recorder of Deeds Office. The easements remain with the farm as the property changes ownership, thereby protecting the land in perpetuity. Inspections are conducted yearly to ensure compliance with the deed of easement.

Information is available upon request or on the Web at www.co.berks.pa.us/alp. Additional information includes an application form, an information pamphlet on conservation easements, and a sample agricultural conservation deed or easement. Please contact the Berks County Agricultural Land Preservation Office at: Berks County Agricultural Center, 1238 County Welfare Road, Suite 260, Leesport, Pennsylvania, 19533 or call (610) 378-1844.

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