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Rabbit Hill Farms approved by Shiloh and Hopewell for farmland preservation

SHILOH – Abe Bakker wants Rabbit Hill Farms to remain farmland in the future, and on Monday, the Borough Council of Shiloh officially backed his plan.

Resolutions passed at this meeting and by the Hopewell Township Committee last week will allow the farmland preservation plan for approximately 560 acres in the two municipalities to proceed at the county level.

“It’s a benefit not only to the farmer but to the surrounding community, because it protects what is historically agricultural land and retains it in agriculture, keeping it open and protected from development. It’s a benefit felt by the entire community,” said Matt Pisarski, Cumberland County principal planner.

“(Rabbit Hill Farms) encompasses the contiguous stretch of prime farmland in the heart of the agricultural west of the county, and it ranked extremely well in the criteria for evaluation in the farmland program.”

The farmland to be preserved is bound by Route 49 to the west, Barrett’s Run Road to the east, Columbia Highway to the north and East Avenue in Shiloh to the south. Rabbit Hill Farms currently uses the land to farm soybeans, wheat, potatoes and sod.

“We’ve had offers on companies that wanted to make a solar farm on the land, a wind farm with electric turbines, stuff like that, and agriculture is getting tougher and tougher all the time to make a living at it,” Bakker said. “…This is another way to preserve the open space for the future and not worry about if it’s going to get developed.”

Bakker said his primary goal for pursuing preservation of this farmland is to be able to transition the acreage to his children with no debt load. According to Pisarski, many other farmers have expressed similar motivation.

“Oftentimes, we have seen farmers to use the program to transfer the property from generation to generation, so the older generation can retire with the income from the easement, and the younger generation can then purchase the ground at a lesser value because of the easements,” Pisarski explained.

Technically speaking, nine individual applications for preservation have been submitted to the county by Dewilde Farm Associates LP and Cross Farm Associates LP, under the general identification as Rabbit Hill Farms. The applications have been assessed preliminarily for a per-acre price of permanent development easements to be placed on each parcel, which will limit their use to agricultural purposes.

“In this case, out of the nine … we’re looking at federal funds providing a 50-percent cost share on four of the nine, and the state providing the other 50-percent cost share on those four,” Pisarski said, noting these determinations are subject to change before the transactions are settled.

“On the other five, we have a cost share split between the state and county on a sliding scale, depending upon per-acre price paid for each of the easements. Typically, it comes out to about a 65-35 split, where the state pays 65 and the county pays 35.”

For some farmers, the liquidation of a portion of their assets enables them to free up money to invest into agricultural improvements. Outside of the development restriction, the choice of how to utilize the compensation or land remain with the property owner.

“He can sell to whomever he likes, but whoever purchases has to follow the deed of easement. It goes with the land, so, in essence, that several hundred acres will be in farming forever,” said Pisarski.

Now that municipal approvals have been granted, final approval resolutions will be presented to the board of freeholders, contracts of sale will be prepared and the county will move forward with title and survey processes. Pisarski said the closing on the preservation of this farmland is projected to occur between the end of 2011 and late spring 2012.

“We’re just happy to see this on a fairly unique and historically significant piece of property. …We want to make sure there are opportunities for future farmers,” said Bakker.