Gorton: ‘Our expenses are rising faster than our revenue’
A farmland preservation program asked the city of Lexington this week for an additional $2.1 million, in part so it can buy conservation easements to protect a farm that was once the home of John C. Breckinridge, a former U.S. Vice President and the last Confederate Secretary of War.
The Purchase of Development Rights program made the request Wednesday during a budget subcommittee of the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Council. Since 2000, the PDR program has spent nearly $79 million in local, state and federal money to protect nearly 30,000 acres of Fayette County farmland from future development.
Mayor Linda Gorton’s proposed budget includes $401,000 for the farmland preservation program. Budget documents show the program has nearly $3.38 million in reserves, but $2 million of that money is already earmarked to acquire the development rights for 16 farms. That leaves it with more than $1.38 million in unallocated funds.
Elizabeth Overman, director of the PDR program, told the council subcommittee on Wednesday that the Rural Land Management Board, which oversees the PDR program, would like to purchase the development rights for a farm that was later identified as Castleton Lyons.
The more than 1,000-acre farm, which is owned by Irish citizen Shane Ryan, has previously applied to the PDR program without success. Buying the development rights for the entire farm on Ironworks Pike would have cost $5 million. The council ultimately decided not to give the program additional money for Castleton Lyons in 2017.
That farm has now applied to the program as three separate tracts of land.
Because it is owned by an Irish citizen, Castleton Lyons does not quality to receive federal matching conservation funds, which typically pays half the cost of conservation easements purchased through the PDR program. The federal government does not allow anyone who does not pay federal income taxes to receive federal conservation dollars. That means the city would have to pick up the total cost for the conservation easement.
It’s not clear how much it would cost to buy conservation easements for the farm now that it has applied in three different tracts, but Gloria Martin, president of the Rural Land Management Board, said during the budget subcommittee meeting the board only had $1 million to spend on farms that did not qualify for federal matching funds and “that was not enough.”
The PDR program does not release the names of applicants until after the easement purchase has been finalized. However, during the Wednesday budget hearing, Castleton Lyon’s new application was discussed by council members.
“I have concerns and I have heard concerns about the potential controversy around Castleton Lyons with its history and it’s foreign ownership and it not qualifying for federal matching funds,” said Councilman James Brown.
In 2017, the council voted to move statues of Breckinridge and John Hunt Morgan from the lawn of the former courthouse because of their support of slavery.
Martin said she understood those concerns.
“We never address the farm by name,” Martin said. “We try when these farms come in to never look at who the person is or what their previous history is. We look at the land and we look at the point system.”
Martin said the goal of the program is to protect high-quality farmland. In 100 years, the ownership of that farm will change, she said.
An attorney who represents Castleton Lyons did not immediately return a phone call asking for comment. Castleton Lyons has previously said it pays property, payroll and other taxes.
The PDR program did not receive any money in the current-year budget. That was due in part because it had a backlog of farms and enough money in its accounts to purchase conservation easements. That backlog was created mostly by changes to the federal program in 2014, which slowed the closing of those development rights purchases, Overman said.
In 2018, the program acquired 716 acres for $907,000, Overman told the committee.
Martin said no farms applied to the program last year because the city did not allocate any money. That’s why the council needs to increase the amount it gives the program, she said.
Martin said the farmland preservation program is key to economic development in Fayette County. One in nine jobs in the county are related to agriculture, she said. The program was created nearly 20 years ago with the goal of acquiring 50,000 acres of farmland. It’s still far short of its goal, Martin said.
The planning and public safety budget subcommittee did not make any decisions during its Wednesday meeting on whether to increase funding to the purchase of development rights program. The council budget subcommittees will report their recommendations to the full council May 28.
Gorton’s $379 million proposed budget includes 15 percent cuts to certain spending areas, no raises for city employees who aren’t police or fire workers, and little new borrowing. The council has until June 30 to make changes to Gorton’s proposed budget.