Sheldon seeks fair, transparent farmland preservation program in New Castle County

 

A county councilman who's fed up with an alleged sweetheart deal being propped up by New Castle County Executive Tom Gordon that would turn two politically-connected farmers into millionaires is calling for change.

"As long as I'm here, there's no way that I can go to sleep at night paying full value for a farm," said County Councilman Tim Sheldon.

The Democrat, who represents District 9, said he's standing up against a deal to use millions in taxpayer money to buy the Port Penn farms of former state Farm Bureau president Gary Warren and ex-public service commissioner Jaymes Lester.

"They're actually giving us the numbers--there's actually three farms--they told us what they wanted, which I've never heard of in my life telling us, 'Well, we want this amount,'" he said. "I'd love to get a half-million for my house--it's only appraised for $300,000."

County Councilman Tim Sheldon releases his plan for farmland. (Amy Cherry/WDEL)

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WDEL obtained an appraisal for Tony Domino's farm--which is admittedly smaller than Lester and Warren's properties. But his farm neighbors the other two along Port Penn Road, and it was appraised at nearly $16,000 an acre--a far cry from the $27,000 an acre Warren's farm was appraised for in the Valbridge report, made public by WDEL.

E-mails uncovered and also published by WDEL show Warren had unfettered insider access to the county's appraiser selection and the entire process of buying development rights to his farm--a process which stands to benefit him greatly.

"Look, if they can get $30,000 an acre--God bless 'em--I always wanted to make $100 an hour, but it didn't work that way in my life," said Sheldon.

But taxpayer money shouldn't be going towards such high-priced purchases, Sheldon insisted. If the county wants to produce farmland preservation deals, Sheldon said they need to ensure its conducted through a fair process. He called for the creation of a county farmland oversight commission or committee.

"The committee (would vote) just like they do with the farmland down in Dover, and it would be transparent, open to the public, and it would be a 'real-good feel-good' to let people know they have a voice in this," said Sheldon. "It's not just giving one or two people money. It gives everyone a chance to bid on it. If you don't want to bid on it, that's fine, you can sell the farm or keep working as you are."

Farmland preservation or special interests protection?

WDEL learned New Castle County previously had an opportunity to purchase four farms for preservation after the farms never made it into the state's preservation program in 2016 due to insufficient funds. The farms were located outside Townsend, on the Levels, in the Blackbird corridor, and in the Port Penn area, according to a letter from the Delaware Agriculture Secretary Ed Kee and Deputy Secretary Austin Short to New Castle County Executive Tom Gordon, which was carbon copied to county council members.

"If New Castle County was able to provide sufficient funding, then it could be possible to purchase all four easements," Kee and Short wrote.

The 405 acres of total farmland was available at a cost of $1.66 million--an average cost of $4,100 an acre, the letter detailed.

"For a quarter of the price, we would get at least double the amount of land, which seems like--if you're a preservation person--that would be a no-brainer," said Kilpatrick.

In 2014, a similar letter sent to County Executive Gordon informed him that five properties--totaling 496 acres--were available to be preserved through the state's program if New Castle County could put up the money.

The farmland in New Castle County came at a steal compared to the Warren/Lester deal--$1.437 million for an average price of $2,897 an acre. County council members weren't carbon copied on that letter. Both Kilpatrick and Sheldon said the request went ignored because council members weren't aware of it at the time.

"We never heard anything from (Gordon)," she said.

Carter said those letters prove the proposed Warren/Lester deal isn't about farmland preservation.

"If it's truly to protect (agriculture) land preservation, to keep open space and land for farming, doesn't it make more sense to get four times the acre at one-sixth the cost?" he asked.

Sheldon had initially introduced legislation to buy several farms at a discounted price in May, but quickly pulled the legislation because he said the state had not yet released which farms they'd be accepting for preservation in 2016. He added there was no political pressure to pull his bill. Instead, he wanted to ensure he was taking a more comprehensive approach to create a true farmland preservation program.

"I figured I've only got one shot at this since I'm throwing a political football."

Under the legislation he's still drafting, Sheldon is seeking to spend $300,000 on spray irrigation systems for New Castle County farmers, who've agreed to preserve their land for 15 years. The benefit to the farmers is obvious--less cost to till their land. He said the county taxpayers get preservation and water capacity.

"It should give us the capacity, where we no longer have to build (a second water farm)," he said. "That's a cool savings of millions."

Sheldon said if the county is going to pay unprecedented prices for farmland preservation deals tied to Warren and Lester, there needs to be significant benefit to the taxpayers.

"You have to do it at a discount. We can't pay you full value. We did come up with something--we buy the farm, the county actually buys the farm," said Sheldon. "For $30,000 an acre, we'll put a museum out there, we'll make it parkland, but we can't give you $30,000 an acre and, 'Oh by the way, you keep everything. Everything stays the same.'"

Sheldon admitted land prices are higher in New Castle County, but certainly not at the rate discovered and reported by WDEL, which would be far higher than market rate.

"If it's 20 percent more expensive than in Kent County...if they pay $5,000 an acre down there, that means we pay another $1,000 an acre here--that's acceptable," Sheldon said.

Councilwoman Janet Kilpatrick, who's been staunchly against the proposed preservation deal for Warren and Lester, said she supports Sheldon's legislation.

"Right now, we aren't even compliant with the state law. The state law says we have to have a board, and we don't have a board and never have," said the District 3 Republican.

Sheldon thinks any creation of a county program could also link directly to the state program. Farmers who applied to the state program, but were not accepted because they were outbid by lower discounts, would automatically be eligible for consideration for farmland preservation consideration in New Castle County. A newly created committee would then vote and have the final say.

"I would fully support that. This is not (a situation where) I, or any of the people voting on this, are against preservation; we're just against preservation at this cost. We aren't going to own the land," said Kilpatrick. "We hear all the time from the council people down here: 'We don't have a library; we don't have a paramedics station; we don't have parks. Why are we paying this kind of money for land that we don't own, when we could spend that same amount of money and give them one--or all--of those items?"

Neither Gordon nor Warren has responded to WDEL's requests for comment.

If an official farmland preservation program was created, Carter said New Castle County has to get this right.

"These are millions of dollars that could be used for...one of the most significant land, agricultural land protections, other types of open space protections...if you weren't doing it for special interest."

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Check out the entire WDEL farmland preservation series.

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