Miami-Dade's plan to buy farmland rights awaits first deal
By Risa Polansky
Interest in Miami-Dade's year-old farmland-preservation initiative is high, but it's off to a slow start.
County commissioners last fall approved a program designed to preserve farmland and stanch urban sprawl by buying agricultural properties' development rights through a conservation easement to guarantee the land be used only for farming.
The county over the past year has received 43 applications totaling 1,500 acres but has yet to actually buy any development rights, said Agricultural Manager Charles LaPradd.
Interest in the program is encouraging, he said, and he hopes to close the first deal before year's end.
Completed thus far: initial appraisals on two sites totaling 85 acres.
"It's a long process," Mr. LaPradd said. "Each one has to be reviewed and appraised."
But, he said, "a lot of the problem is, the 43 applications we received, many are scattered" and some are less than 20 acres, some under 5.
"That's not optimal — we're looking for large-scale properties."
Now, officials are reaching out to encourage owners of large properties to apply.
Staffers have also tried working with applicants' neighbors to amass larger parcels.
"That's been difficult, trying to negotiate the people next door to other properties, trying to see if they'd be willing to apply," Mr. LaPradd said. "The economic situation hasn't helped much. It's got everybody concerned about what the future holds."
Farmers generally begin the year borrowing to buy supplies and seed, he said, and some are worried now about roadblocks to borrowing.
Also, "if you sell the development rights, you lower the value of the property," he added.
But selling rights has benefits: "you can get money now and still hold the property, still farm the property. You could sell the property. You can do anything with it — except develop it. It's a great program."
The county's General Obligation Bond program sets aside $30 million to preserve farmland by buying development rights. Funds are available incrementally until 2017.
Commissioner Katy Sorenson, whose South Dade district includes much of the county's agricultural land, said she's optimistic.
"This is a new program for Miami-Dade County, and everything new takes a long time. I do think that we'll see more interest as it gets started," she said. "We actually have a lot of interest, we have a number of applications — it's just following it through and making sure it gets done."
There may be opportunity also to stretch the county's dollar, she said.
"Considering what's going on with property values, this could give us an opportunity to purchase more than we thought we could."
Mr. LaPradd is also hopeful.
"There were some people who didn't think we'd get a single application," he said. "I thought by now I would have acquired at least one development right, at least one property — we're very close."
Commissioners should soon see the first deal for approval, he said, and from there the program should take off.
"If you're doing something for the first time, there are always starts and stops. Once you get one under your belt, things should move better."