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HARRISBURG, PA-Gov. Ed Rendell has awarded $154 million of the Growing Greener II Fund to 415 projects across the commonwealth. Of that, $80 million is being used to purchase agricultural easements that will permanently preserve more than 38,000 acres of productive farmland.

The Agricultural Conservation Easement Purchase program enables state, county and local governments to buy conservation easements, sometimes called development rights, from owners of farmland that meets certain criteria. Among the qualifying stipulations is a 50-acre minimum, an assessment of the extent and type of non-agricultural uses nearby, and the existing control of erosion and sedimentation on the land.

The objective is to slow the loss of prime farmland to non-agricultural uses, including commercial real estate development. Farmers can receive proceeds from the sales in a lump sum, in five-year installments, or on a long-term installment basis in order to pay down debt, expand farming operations and/or pass farms onto the next generation.

This is the second year of grants from the $625-million fund, which was established and approved by voters in 2005. It will be distributed within six years of the legislation. In the first year of awards, $39.4 million was spent to preserve more than 14,800 acres on 142 farms statewide.

In addition to preserving farmland, Growing Greener II grants are directed toward protecting watersheds, reclaiming abandoned mines, remediating industrial brownfields and investing in other environmental initiatives. The projects are funded through the state’s departments of environmental protection, conservation and natural resources, agriculture, and community and economic development along with input from the fish, boat and game commissions

Projects funded from this year’s awards that are unrelated to farmland include the repair of stream banks, the creation of recreational trails and community parks, dam improvements and the development of wildlife habitat. One example is nearly $1.4 million to eliminate dangerous cliffs at the former Kelly Estate mine in Clinton County to help the restoration of a 130-acre meadow to support a habitat for elk and other wildlife.

“The huge scope of these projects shows that the Growing Greener II funds are truly being used to sustain Pennsylvania’s environment in a broad range of ways, like giving citizens a safe place for outdoor recreation and allowing us to support Pennsylvania’s farming heritage by preserving farmlands,” Rendell says in a statement. Farm owners, potential brownfield developers, and community organizations submit initial applications for funding to the appropriate departments, such as agriculture, environmental protection and or community and economic development. Each of the departments then evaluates projects according to its own criteria.

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