McCormick Farm struggle: How should Pennsylvania balance development and preservation?

Investigations

“I even preserved the outhouse,” Larry Claycomb laughed as he walked his 40-acre farm property in Middlesex Township.

Claycomb’s land is one of 160 preserved farms in Cumberland County, adding up to roughly 19,000 preserved acres. 

When someone like Claycomb preserves farmland, he or she is donating or selling the rights for future development. Claycomb chose to donate his to the county. He keeps the land, but the county holds the resulting conservation easement that preserves it for agricultural use and prevents future development. 

Landowners who sell development rights can receive anywhere from $700 to $4,000 per acre in the Midstate. Farmland can be preserved through municipal or county/state programs, in which the taxpayers are essentially paying to preserve the land, or a private land trust.

Now, Claycomb is concerned about Cumberland Valley School District’s plan to buy and build on the nearby, preserved McCormick Farm in Silver Spring Township; he’s wondering what the move means for land like his.

“It’s what I call an attack on preserved land,” Claycomb said.

McCormick Farm

While Cumberland County holds the conservation easement to Claycomb’s property, Natural Lands Trust holds the conservation easement for the 110-acre McCormick Farm, located on Old Willow Mill Road off Carlisle Pike. The McCormick Farm property is listed for sale at $1.5 million and is currently surrounded by development.

In January, Cumberland Valley approved a resolution to negotiate the purchase of the lot. The district plans to obtain the land through eminent domain. The owner wants to sell, but Natural Lands Trust does not and has filed a petition in court.

Cumberland County’s commissioners filed an amicus brief in opposition to Cumberland Valley’s plans. 

“Agriculture provides about one in six jobs in the state of Pennsylvania,” Commissioner Vince DiFilippo said. “Preserving farmland means preserving jobs.”

“The fact that an entire farm is being targeted, one that has a conservation easement on it and one that’s of historical significance, there has to be a better solution for this,” DiFilippo added.

Taxpayers concerned about the precedent this would set for taking preserved land have spoken against the move at recent school board meetings.

Preserved Land Battle in Lancaster County

In Lancaster County, which has more than 109,000 acres of preserved farmland, a similar battle brewed several years ago. In 2000, Ephrata Area School District tried to take preserved land to access a new school. After a seven-year court battle, Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled against the district.

That case did not involve eminent domain, and it was a school district pitted against the County, not a private land trust. However, both the CV and Ephrata cases have similar themes and invoke the question, “How do we balance development, education, and preservation?”

Cumberland Valley’s Perspective

“We are going to grow over 10,000 students in the next five to eight years,” Cumberland Valley superintendent Dr. Frederick Withum said.

CV has two new school buildings in the works, but Withum says time will already be running out by the time they open.

“Our elementary schools district-wide will be at 90 percent of their capacity,” Withum said. “Our two middle schools, including our new middle school, will also be reaching their capacity collectively in the next five to eight years.”

Withum maintains the school district needs the McCormick Farm for expansion. He says he is often asked why CV can’t purchase a different, non-preserved property.

“The district and the board has spent a considerable amount of time looking at the county maps,” Withum said. “We’re looking at where the sewer lines run, what is already preserved, what is commercial property, what, where is the distribution of our students … McCormick Farm was the best fit.”

The school district currently owns additional land, but Withum says it can’t be used for expansion because it is needed for stormwater management in order to comply with federal regulations.

Withum says the district is open to using the McCormick Farm land for combined educational and agricultural purposes.

“There are some very valuable public uses for that farm that will still manage its, and respect its history,” Withum said. “This piece of property can be maintained, even though there would be a school on it, as a site open to the public for the public good… a 100 plus acre oasis for people who are living in this area.”

“If people are concerned that this sets a larger precedent on farm preservation,  it doesn’t,” Withum added, emphasizing that he and the school board members believe in the importance of preserving farmland. “Actually, it improves and ups the ante to have a comprehensive plan and not leave land to be lost and surrounded by the type of development that you’re hoping to avoid.”

Cumberland Valley plans to host a town hall about McCormick Farm at the end of May. School board members say they will finalize details at Monday night’s meeting.

“While passions have flared, everybody’s heart has been in the right place,” Withum said. “And this is a great opportunity for our students to see democracy in action. Obviously, this is something that has two sides to an issue that really needs to be open and debated.”

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