For three hundred years, residents of Buckingham Township have prided themselves on its natural beauty. The township encompasses the wooded slopes of Buckingham Mountain, the headwaters of several important streams, crossroads villages, and farms of such exceptional fertility that in the 19th century Buckingham was called "the Empire Township."
For the last forty years, Buckingham has been the focus of a struggle between two groups with opposing agendas: developers eager to take advantage of its prime location by building on farmland and residents determined to preserve the township's rural legacy. Preservation continues to be of enormous concern to the township's residents, who have repeatedly authorized the expenditure of tax dollars for the purchase of open space and farmland easements.
In 1989, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania established an agricultural land preservation program with funds contributed by the state and participating county governments. In 1991, the first two farms in Bucks County protected under that program were those of Buckingham farmers Leonard Crooke and Charles and Wilmer Frederick. At first alone, and then in partnership with the township, the county program continues to be an important contributor to the township's efforts to preserve its farms.
In 1995, Buckingham residents went to the polls and approved a referendum that permitted the Board of Supervisors to borrow four million dollars to establish a township land preservation program-making Buckingham the first municipality in Bucks County to do so. In 1999, residents approved a second referendum in the amount of 9.5 million dollars to continue the program. In 2008, with a vote of 82 percent in favor, voters overwhelmingly approved a third referendum which allows the township to borrow up to 20 million additional dollars to fund the next great push to preserve Buckingham's historic heritage of farmland and open spaces.
Enthusiasm for land preservation continues to be high: at the end of 2009, the township Planning Board surveyed residents on their concerns and 90% of the respondents listed land preservation as a priority.
The money expended to date from the 2008 referendum has preserved six tracts of land totaling over 300 acres.
Buckingham continues to seek county and federal funds to supplement local funds. In October 2009, the Bucks County Open Space Review Board approved Buckingham Township's Revised Open Space plan; as a consequence, the township will receive $880,000 in County preservation funds. Moreover, the township successfully obtained a grant from the Federal Farmland Preservation Fund which will reimburse $500,000 of the amount it expended in 2009.
As of July 2009, 4250 acres of land have been permanently protected from development in Buckingham. A variety of preservation options have been used:
Donated or preserved through deed: 690 acres
Easements purchased by Bucks County: 658 acres
Easements purchases by Buckingham or by the county or township jointly: 2225 acres
Preserved through use of Transfer of Development Rights: 505 acres
The acres that are preserved through easements and TDRs remain in private ownership. Buckingham owns the township parks for all to enjoy.
The easement is filed with the Bucks County Recorder of Deeds and "runs with the land." That means that the owners can continue to farm the land, pass it on to their children or sell it, but no owner, now or in the future, can develop it.
Every landowner still owns his or her land. Preservation has been accomplished through the purchase or donation of a conservation easement. A conservation easement, once purchased or given, is held by the county or the township and "runs with the land." That means that owners can continue to farm the land, pass it on to their children or sell it, but no owner, now or in the future, can develop it.
The principal focus of the program is the preservation of Buckingham's farms; their large cleared acreage makes them prime grist for the developers' mills. We also know that a strong and productive farm community is our best bulwark against the ills of unbridled development and its inseparable companion, skyrocketing school taxes. The relationship is inescapable: between 1995 and 2004 the Central Bucks School District built seven new schools to accommodate a huge surge in new students in the district. During that same period, our school taxes increased 67%. Buckingham residents pay half of their local earned income taxes and 81% of their property taxes to the school district.
The cost to educate each Central Bucks student in 2009-2010 is over $13,000. An average Buckingham family is paying $5500 in property and earned income taxes to the school district. Deducting the 15% in state aid that Central Bucks receives, each new home (which produces on average slightly less than one new student) represents a deficit of $5125 in meeting school costs. Therefore, the 100 houses that had been planned for the Victoria Park and Sugarmill developments - on land we have now preserved instead - represented an annual cost to all of us of more than $500,000 had they been built.
We recognize that land preservation has costs, but it is far less costly than unbridled development and it provides priceless advantages:
• Land preservation supports a robust farm economy which contributes to the financial wellbeing of our local community, the county and state.
• Land preservation saves taxpayers the unending, ever-expanding cost of schools and other services which the development of the farms would have required.
To begin the process of selling a conservation easement on a property, the landowner submits an application to Buckingham's Agricultural and Open Space Preservation Committee. Generally speaking, the committee visits and evaluates the site, and then forwards the application and its recommendations to the Board of Supervisors. While the principal focus of the preservation program is on productive farmland, the evaluation also takes into account the historic and scenic value of a property, its special natural features, and its strategic location. If the Supervisors decide to pursue preservation, a state-certified appraiser is employed to establish the value of an easement on the property. Negotiations are then opened with the landowner.
By law, neither the county nor the township may offer a landowner more than the appraised value. However, non-governmental organizations may offer additional funds. In the recent past, the directors of the Buckingham Concours d'Elegance car show provided $100,000 through their Land Preservation Fund to help preserve a 60 acre farm with frontage on the Neshaminy Creek.
In addition to the monies realized through the sale of an easement, there are other financial inducements to landowners. They can obtain tax benefits by donating conservation easements or by selling them at less than their appraisal value. They realize substantial tax savings since their properties will be assessed at their agricultural rather than their development value. That in turn reduces their property taxes and, ultimately, their children's inheritance taxes
• Bucks County Agricultural Land Preservation Program-Supported jointly by the state and county, the program has been in operation since 1989. To be eligible for consideration, farms must be at least 50 acres in size, actively farmed and enrolled in the township's Agricultural Security Area. Farms are prioritized for inclusion in the program based on many factors. Among the most important factors are the productivity of a farm and the prospects for its continued successful operation.
• County-Township Cooperative Purchase-Buckingham is always willing to cooperate with the Bucks County Agricultural Land Preservation Program to preserve a township farm.
• Buckingham Township Program-Buckingham may purchase conservation easements on properties that do not meet the criteria of the county program or are not at the top of the county priority list.
• Donations-Buckingham is able to accept donations of conservation easements. The township holds and safeguards the easements in the same way that the county does. Donors may take a tax deduction just as they would if they were dealing with a private non-profit organization.
• Transfer of Development Rights-Owners of properties of 25 acres or more may apply to the township for transferable development rights (TDRs). They may then permanently preserve their property by selling their development rights to someone who will use them to increase density (at a specified limit) elsewhere in the township.Unlike the other options, the TDR program allows new building to occur, but it has already saved large areas of farmland which would have cost the township millions to protect. It's another tool in the tool chest--a state-sanctioned means of getting developer dollars to pay for farmland preservation.
The decision to place a conservation easement on a property always rests with the landowner who may withdraw from the process at any time before a final agreement is reached. Buckingham has been fortunate to have landowners who are willing to sacrifice the money being offered by developers in favor of preserving Buckingham's heritage for generations to come.
If you are interested in learning more about preserving your property, the township will be happy to give you additional information without obligating you to take any action.