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Acres upon acres of Erie County farmland and open space have been gobbled up by suburban subdivisions, office parks and strip malls.

But little by little, a handful of communities are quietly staking claim to what’s left before it’s gone for good.

They’re buying up land for farming or paying property owners to keep it as agriculture – forever.

“This is the only system that I know of that works,” said Nancy R. Smith, executive director of the Western New York Land Conservancy, a not-for-profit organization that helps communities preserve and monitor farmland and open space.

The problem is that the Buffalo region continues to sprawl despite its declining population, Smith said.

As a result, she said, new homes and development are taking away prime soils – and leading to this suburban fight to save green space.

“If you don’t protect it, it’s not going to be there,” Smith said. “Whether it’s 10 years from now or 50 years from now, it will be gone.”

Clarence – one of the area’s fastest-growing towns – has been the most aggressive.

Marilla, Elma and Eden – three farming communities – are taking steps to ensure their rural character exists long into the future.

Even Amherst – the center of development in Erie County – has protected hundreds of acres, including Ben Brook Farm on Tonawanda Creek Road, where flowers, shrubs and specialty vegetables have been grown for some 35 years.

“I just couldn’t see it going for housing,” said Rick Vilonen, owner of Ben Brook.

For Greg Spoth, it means hope for the future.

“We look at it as an opportunity to pass the farm down,” said Spoth, who owns Greg’s U-Pick in Clarence.

But protecting farmland doesn’t come cheap. Over the past 15 years, at least $12 million has been spent to preserve nearly 3,000 acres of farmland and open space across Erie County, according to figures from the towns and the land conservancy.

In some cases, the land is purchased outright and leased back for farming.

More often, the towns end up paying property owners such as Vilonen and Spoth for their development rights.

That means the owners keep the property but are required to leave it forever farmland – even if it’s sold.

Nearly half of that $12 million spent on farmland came from state and federal grants, but those funding sources have dried up in recent years during tough budget times.

And it can get tricky for municipalities to pay for farmland and open space, while they’re trying to cut back on spending.

Case in point: Amherst.

Amherst was first to protect

In the late 1990s, Amherst started the area’s first farmland protection program, targeting more than two dozen properties.

Over the next 15 years, Amherst paid nine property owners a total of $3.9 million for the development rights to 16 parcels, according to town figures.

Prices ranged from $2,000 to $7,900 an acre, figures show.

Grants covered at least 75 percent of the purchase price, while the town paid the rest, explained Eric W. Gillert, the town’s planning director.

In the end, Amherst preserved nearly 800 acres of farmland in its north country.

Figures show much of that is owned and farmed by Don and Dan Spoth, Greg’s cousins.

Also included is Vilonen’s Ben Brook Farm, 60 acres that has evoked interest from more than a few developers over the years.

“I’m on the IDA board, so I have nothing against developers,” said Vilonen, who is chairman of the Amherst Industrial Development Agency and also serves on the board of the conservancy, “but there are places that ought to be preserved and protected.”

What has changed, though, is the philosophy for Amherst moving forward.

A pending agreement for 67 acres on Hopkins Road will be the last in which Amherst chips in its own money to protect farmland, said Supervisor Barry A. Weinstein.

Instead, he said, Amherst will try to negotiate a bargain rate on any future deals, in hopes that a reduced price would cover the 25 percent town match needed to obtain grant funding.

“When I came in four years ago, I decided that it was inappropriate to pay for development rights,” Weinstein said. “I don’t think taxpayers should be paying any part of it.”

This raises questions about how viable Amherst’s Farmland Protection Program will be in the future if landowners are asked to take a discount for their properties.

“It doesn’t mean you still can’t make progress,” Smith said. “There are other avenues.”

Meanwhile, just the opposite is happening across the border in Clarence.

‘Greenprint’ is Clarence’s way

Clarence has used little state or federal grant money to protect farmland.

Instead, voters in 2002 approved a $12.5 million bond to pay for the town’s “Greenprint” program, which ensures that the fast-growing town of 30,000 people preserves farmland and open space.

So far, Clarence has paid out about $7.1 million – almost double what Amherst has spent – to acquire more than 1,200 acres from 15 property owners, according to figures from the town.

Prices ranged from $941 per acre to as much as $25,740 an acre, depending on demand for the parcels.

More than half the property was purchased outright by the town and leased out for farming.

“Any time you spend money in a municipality, there is always some kind of blowback,” said Clarence Supervisor David C. Hartzell Jr., “but this is the only program where I have yet to receive any complaint.”

In fact, Hartzell said, Greenprint was a major reason that Moody’s Investment Services raised the town’s bond credit rating, because the program increases property values and makes Clarence a more desirable place to live.

And if it helps farmers earn some money for retirement, Hartzell said, then God bless ’em.

“It is difficult,” Spoth said of the farming life. “The worst part of it is the expenses just go up and up all the time. It’s hard to keep up with operating costs.”

But Spoth is excited about efforts to preserve farmland.

Spoth sold Clarence the development rights to his 100-acre farm on Lapp Road, where people from all around come to pick 200,000 pounds of berries each year.

Now he’s looking to the future – and even thinking about buying more property to farm.

Outer towns take precautions

Outlying towns such as Elma, Eden and Marilla aren’t under the same development pressures as Amherst and Clarence, but they’re taking steps nonetheless.

All three have started protecting farmland, more as a precaution for the future. Marilla has been the most active of the three, using nearly $1 million in grant money to buy the development rights for 768 acres.

“I moved out here for the same reason as everybody else – to get away from the hustle and bustle,” said George J. Gertz, who left office as Marilla supervisor at the end of last year. “We pride ourselves on being a farming community – and this is a way to protect it.”

More grant money is in the pipeline.

The state recently announced a half-million dollars to provide communities with small grants to set up farmland protection programs.

And for the first time in several years, it appears that more funds could be available to help purchase more development rights.

Farmers, in turn, may use that money to pay off debt or sock away for retirement or put back into the farm.

But selling isn’t as easy a decision as you might think.

The property could easily fetch a much higher price in the future, and farmers often wrestle with the idea of signing away their children’s inheritance.

“It was very hard,” Vilonen said of the decision, “because I gave up the rights to sell it at market rate.”

But there’s also a belief in preserving the land and a certain amount of comfort for farmers knowing what will happen to their property after they’re gone.

“You may not know exactly what’s going to happen to it,” Spoth said, “but you know what’s not going to happen to it.”

New Staff Reporter Patrick Lakamp contributed to this report. email: jrey@buffnews.com