: The Agricultural Conservation Easement (ACE) Program involves a legal process and landowners are advised to consult with an attorney before proceeding.
1. Landowners voluntarily submit an application to the ACE Program by December 31st of any given year to be considered for the program the following year. As part of the application, landowners are responsible for submitting a copy of the conservation plan, if any, for ranking purposes. There is no charge to submit an application to the program and there is no commitment to proceed if the application is selected.
2. Applications are reviewed to ensure that minimum criteria is met. If an application meets minimum criteria, the landowners may meet with a representative of the County Office to review the ACE Program. If an application fails to meet minimum criteria, the landowners will be sent a letter outlining the reasons. If at any time circumstances change so that the farm does meet minimum criteria, it is the landowners’ responsibility to contact the County Office.
3. Applications that meet the minimum criteria are ranked using the LESA Ranking System based on the material submitted by December 31st. If the landowners request a modification to the application after December 31st, the request will need approval from the County Board and may be denied, particularly if the change involves withholding land from the application. If a request is denied, the landowners may choose to withdraw from the ranking and reapply the following year or continue with the program as the application had been originally submitted. The ranking begins in January and is typically completed within three to four months.
4. Upon completion of the ranking, applications are selected in the order in which they were ranked, highest to lowest, based on the amount of available funding. Landowners are notified in writing as to whether their application was selected. Applications not selected in a given year are automatically ranked in subsequent years unless the landowners request to withdraw from the program. If an application is not selected, it is strongly encouraged that landowners review the ranking of their application with the staff of the County Office. If an application is selected, the landowners may proceed with the program.
5. When an application is selected, the landowners are required to submit a $500 security deposit within fifteen (15) days to proceed with an appraisal of the easement value. After the deposit is received, the County Office will order an appraisal that may take several months to complete. The security deposit is returned provided that the landowners convey an agricultural conservation easement.
6. An appraisal is prepared for each selected application to determine the value of the agricultural conservation easement. The value of the easement is equal to the difference between the open market value and the agricultural value of the farm.
7. The County Board reviews each appraisal and authorizes a per acre offer to purchase an agricultural conservation easement. The offer may not exceed, but may be less than the appraised value of the easement. The County Board may impose a maximum payment per acre, otherwise referred to as a “cap.” The cap is currently set at $2,500 per acre.
8. The landowners either accept the offer, reject the offer, or proceed with a second appraisal at their own expense. If a second appraisal is pursued, the offer may change based on the formula described in Exhibit D of these guidelines. The second appraisal process is described in this section of the guidelines under “Offer to Purchase an Agricultural Conservation Easement.”
Please Note: The offer is a legal document. Landowners should consult with their attorney before signing it and proceeding with the ACE Program.
9. After the landowners accept an offer, the County Office proceeds with the following:
a. Acquires a title report to ensure the easement purchase is conveyed in clear title and that there are no restrictions inconsistent with the terms of the easement, as well as to obtain title insurance. Landowners must be able to convey the easement in clear title. Therefore, all liens must either subordinate to the easement or be paid before or at the settlement of the easement.
b. Obtains a survey if the legal description on the property deed does not have adequate closure. The ACE Program pays for the survey, except for the expense to survey land withheld from the application at the landowners’ request.
c. Requests additional documentation, as required.
10. After determination of final easement acreage either by property deed or survey, an Agreement of Sale is executed. The Agreement of Sale specifies the final easement purchase price (final acreage multiplied by the accepted price per acre) and method of payment. Payment methods include a lump sum payment, installment payments, or a Like-Kind Exchange.
Please Note: The Agreement of Sale is a legal document. Landowners should consult with their attorney before signing it and proceeding with the ACE Program.
11. Adjoining landowners are notified of the impending easement purchase by certified mail or personal service. They may object to the easement purchase.
12. For those easement purchases involving State funding, a recommendation is submitted to the PA Bureau of Farmland Preservation. The Bureau reviews the application and recommends the application for approval to the State Board that meets approximately six times each year. Deadlines for submission of the recommendations are approximately 1½ months prior to a State Board meeting.
13. Easement purchases recommended by the PA Bureau of Farmland Preservation need to be reviewed and approved by the State Board to proceed as a joint county and state easement purchase.
14. The staff of the County Office schedules settlement of the easement purchase as checks issued by the State become available. Settlement is typically held at the title company providing the title insurance for the easement purchase unless other arrangements are necessary. The landowners sign the agricultural conservation easement and conservation plan agreement and receive financial compensation for conveying the easement.
Please Note: The Agricultural Conservation Deed of easement and Conservation Plan Agreement are legal documents. Landowners should consult with their attorney before signing them.
15. Farm inspections are performed yearly to ensure compliance with the easement.