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Rural Issues

Pa. pays property owners for land lost to eminent domain, but farmers want more for their loss

by Marley Parish of Spotlight PA State College |

An aerial photo of U.S. Route 322 running toward State College.
Abby Drey / Centre Daily Times

This story was produced by the State College regional bureau of Spotlight PA, an independent, nonpartisan newsroom dedicated to investigative and public-service journalism for Pennsylvania. Sign up for our north-central Pa. newsletter, Talk of the Town, at spotlightpa.org/newsletters/talkofthetown.

BELLEFONTE — A massive highway project in Centre County that will likely result in some farmers losing their properties has prompted calls to update how agricultural land is valued in Pennsylvania’s eminent domain process.

The government uses the legal procedure to take private land for public uses like road and bridge construction, parks, and other developments with community benefits. Advocates within the state’s agriculture sector argue that farmers are short-changed by the process, which requires compensation based on market value, payment for possible damages, and relocation support.

They say that state law — which caps relocation support for farms and small businesses at $25,000 — doesn’t accurately reflect the financial burden of moving to a new place. Plus, farmers say that the final offer for a property doesn’t account for fertile soil or product reliability.

Over the past decade, cropland prices have increased, costing more than $8,620 per acre in Pennsylvania, a number that may be higher or lower depending on the county. According to U.S. Department of Agriculture data, the number of farms in Pennsylvania has also declined, drawing concern from industry officials and policymakers about protecting a sector that generates billions of dollars for the state’s annual economy.

Farmers, whose properties likely serve as both their homes and livelihood, might get a fair offer as far as a property assessment is concerned, but the eminent domain process does not factor in their special relationship with land. To raise livestock and grow crops, farmers invest heavily in land and soil management.

Responding to concerns and frustration over eminent domain, state Sen. Cris Dush (R., Jefferson) has proposed updating the law to include payments for “lost goodwill” — which he defines as a farm’s location, community history, and reputation for producing crops — when determining a farm’s value.

The proposal would require property owners to prove the loss relates to their land being taken, and would prohibit duplicate payments, meaning someone couldn’t receive compensation for factors already accounted for in the existing assessment process. The agency trying to use eminent domain also would have the opportunity to counter.

The Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, which represents thousands of farmers statewide, backs the proposal. Modeled after a California law, the bill would expand the criteria for determining payments for land acquired through eminent domain. The legislation doesn’t give a specific dollar amount, but Andy Bater, a Farm Bureau board member, said it treats farmers’ land like “intellectual property” during a January hearing in Bellefonte on the legislation.

“This way, for those times when there is no other choice but to disrupt farms, farmers might at least stand a chance of replicating their operations elsewhere,” Bater said. “Farm enterprises would be made whole, and farmers would be able to continue to feed Pennsylvania and the world.”

The legal definition of eminent domain has evolved over time to consider public benefit, not just use, said Marc Needles, a lawyer who specializes in the process.

While states cannot supersede federal powers, Pennsylvania can enact policies to guide agencies within the commonwealth. Current law prohibits the taking of private property for most kinds of private use. Still, navigating eminent domain can be complicated and costly to challenge in court, which property owners have the right to do.

In recent years, the State College Area Connector, a huge highway project within the U.S. Route 322 corridor in rural Centre County, has drawn pushback from residents and local officials because the multimillion-dollar plan will likely claim private properties — including longtime, family-owned farms.

State law requires that the agency taking the land also help with relocation, but the level of support can vary, Needles said. In the case of the State College project, PennDOT would be the agency taking land.

Relocating is a burden for any property owner, but moving farm operations poses unique challenges because farmers need to evaluate the soil, landscape, and acreage to determine whether they can continue production at a new location.

“Farms can’t just be moved,” Jesse Darlington, whose family owns and lives on a 250-acre property located along Route 322, said at the January hearing.

Though his mother, Bonnie Darlington, appreciates the legislative push to better compensate farmers who lose their land to public projects, she wants to see limits on how many times and for how long someone must go through eminent domain.

“Right now, we’re in four years of limbo,” she told Spotlight PA. “Limbo is a horrible, stressful state.”

Property acquisition in some form is standard for PennDOT projects, spokesperson Erin Waters-Trasatt told Spotlight PA in an email.

PennDOT has not yet identified specific properties to acquire for the connector project because a final route for the highway hasn’t been selected. In January, the department announced that it removed the possibility of a connector between Route 322 and state Route 45, so some properties are no longer within the study area.

During the January hearing, Dush suggested PennDOT use existing state-owned land to construct the new highway to avoid private property acquisitions altogether. He again mentioned the proposal during a budget hearing with the state Department of Agriculture last month.

“I think we need to start looking at seizing some of the state lands instead of the farmlands because it’s important to our local economy out there,” Dush said in February.

Alexis Campbell, a PennDOT spokesperson, told Spotlight PA that the agency considered using state-owned land as part of a previous study. However, she said that path is not an option because the acquisition would involve Rothrock State Forest, which has federal protections, and nearby Colyer Lake.

All of PennDOT’s proposed routes would affect the Darlington Farm. Two of the options would shut down operations, Darlington said. The best option would be a route running along the existing roadway. That would still claim a house, barn, and fields, but the rest of the farm could remain intact.

The Agricultural Land Condemnation Approval Board oversees some of the eminent domain process for local and state agencies that seek to claim farmland, including PennDOT proposals. But its scope is limited to properties with special protections, which two parcels of land that make up the Darlington farm have.

Jesse Darlington told Spotlight PA that participating in programs that give additional protection is something most farmers do to ensure their land is around for future generations.

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