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Agriculture board initiates plan to protect local farmland Unchecked development is threatening rural areas

Cattaraugus County is one of the few counties in New York State without a farmland protection plan to promote agriculture, direct development away from farming areas and preserve rural areas for farming profitability.

But as in other counties in the state, the farming industry and agricultural lands are threatened by rising wages due to labor legislation and a new wave of tax assessments that some fear will take the land out of production and lead to subdivision development and forest clear-cuts.

Farming still claims a large share of Cattaraugus County's economy. The county's Agricultural and Farmland Protection Board, acutely aware of the consequences of unchecked development, has moved to help preserve agriculture in the county.

On Thursday, the group received about 80 pages of a farmland protection plan.

"I saw this board get excited for the first time," said Joan Petzen of Cornell Cooperative Extension, the board's chairwoman who has nudged the process along for the past decade.

Philip Gottwals, an economic development consultant with ACDS of Maryland, talked about eight recommendations for economic development in agriculture. He has been hired to steer the process with the help of a $50,000 federal grant that includes a $10,000 match from the county.

Board members will be asked to comment on a list of proposals that could be set up for the next 10 years.

Consultants over the past few months have met with county farmers around their kitchen tables, and those interviews are not yet complete.

Another direction of the study, on land preservation, prepared by the American Farmland Trust, will be discussed at the board's next meeting April 10.

Petzen and Gottwals said the board will have a short time to digest the information and the plan will begin to take on a recognizable shape in the first week of May.

A final draft will be presented to the public, local community groups and elected officials perhaps as soon as July, and the board and county lawmakers will then have the option of passing a resolution in support of the protection plan.

The study already reflects the core belief that the "best type of farmland preservation is a profitable farm," Gottwals said.

Among his recommendations is to pay heed to labor laws that could further upset a precariously balanced farm economy.

He also asks anyone concerned about the rural landscape to make sure they understand proposed legislation to tax timber on farmland.

"The way we discussed it last night, to think about the law really says, if you were to put in agricultural context it would be like taxing your ag land and putting a valuation on the corn that grows on it."

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