- Associated Press - Saturday, September 10, 2016

LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) - A local review of Lexington’s farmland preservation program was launched after a federal audit found the city had overcharged for conservation easements.

But the Lexington Herald-Leader reports (https://bit.ly/2c4tt98) that the Rural Land Management Board review was abruptly halted last year, and that a 40-minute discussion of the of the issue was scrubbed from the minutes of the meeting.

Spokeswoman Susan Straub told the newspaper the law department was trying to protect the city from legal liability, not hide the board’s actions.

City attorneys “try to keep the government from getting sued, and try to limit the damages when we know we’re going to get sued,” she said. “It would be irresponsible to do otherwise.”

Federal agriculture officials are trying to figure out if or how much Fayette County must repay the Natural Resource Conservation Service for the $300,000 overcharge found by the audit.

The federal conservation service generally picks up half the cost of buying conservation easements that preserve farmland from future development.

The city’s Purchase of Development Rights program was created in 2000 with the goal of preserving nearly 80 square miles of farmland.

Since then, a total of $77 million has been allocated - $37 million in local money, $24 million from the federal government and $16 million from the state - to buy conservation easements in Fayette County. The program has preserved about 46 square miles and has been seen as a model conservation program around the country.

Some of the board members who helped stop the local review now support an audit of the program, saying they were previously opposed because the federal audit hadn’t yet been resolved.

“It’s not that we were hiding anything; it’s procedure verses fact,” board member Frank Penn said. “At the time, we didn’t have any facts.”

Lexington Mayor Jim Gray said a more thorough local audit should be done after the issues raised by the federal audit are addressed.

The 2015 audit by the U.S. Department of Agriculture raised questions about the Lexington program that included the two transactions that resulted in the overcharge.

According to the audit, the program submitted the higher private appraisals of property values to the federal conservation agency instead of a lower compromise figure.

Billy Van Pelt, the former director of the purchase of development rights program who left in October 2013, said a legal opinion from a lawyer hired by “rural land interests” cleared the city of any wrongdoing. Van Pelt said the appraisals submitted to the federal government clearly stated who paid for them.

The conservation service has since hired a new appraisal of both farms that resulted in the same value as originally submitted. If the new estimates are approved, the county won’t owe any money.

Board member Nathan Billings a more far reaching audit of the program is the right thing to do.

“Like all programs that receive public money, I believe transparency and accountability is of the utmost importance,” he said. “I believe the future of the PDR program is dependent on council funding and the council’s confidence that the program is working as it is intended.”


Information from: Lexington Herald-Leader, https://www.kentucky.com

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