Saturday, August 12, 2017

Berkeley County Farmland Protection Board to explore drone use

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. — Berkeley County's farmland protection board is exploring the use of drones to help monitor more than 4,800 acres in the county that have been placed under conservation easements.

“We have no intention of flying over property without the express, written permission of the property owner," said Mark Schiavone, the board's executive director in an announcement on Friday. “We want this experience to be useful, interesting, and fun for us and our land owners.”

The unmanned aerial vehicles also are expected to be used to help assess land that is the subject of easement applications.

Schiavone said he and Farmland Protection Board Chairman J. Bradford Langdon completed a training course offered by Blue Ridge Community and Technical College to prepare for the Federal Aviation Administration remote pilot test, which they recently passed.

Given that some of the farmland protection board's easement properties, as well as some application properties, are within a 4-nautical-mile radius of Eastern West Virginia Regional Airport, the organization still needs to obtain air traffic control permission to operate in that air space.

"Permission can take upwards of 90 days and there is a lot of paperwork before we can get to the point where we can fly in that area," Schiavone said.

The farmland protection board is in the process of closing on eight easements that would add 1,030 more acres to the program, but Schiavone said in an interview that some of the applications may fall through, given government regulations attached to some of the funding involved.

The farmland protection board is funded by a transfer tax on all real estate transactions in Berkeley County and also nets additional easement support via partnerships with state and federal agencies and private organizations.

"It's just a perfect storm," Schiavone said of the present opportunity to add a large amount of acreage within a short period of time.

Aside from having proposed easements that are eligible for different state and federal funding, county transfer tax revenues have topped $1 million annually are helping fuel farmland conservation efforts, according to Schiavone.

"We're really busy," Schiavone said.

The uptick in activity has pushed the farmland protection board to explore options to obtain a larger operating space.

The Martinsburg City Council on Thursday approved a one-year agreement to lease third-floor space at the city's train station complex to the nonprofit organization for $687 per month, effective Oct. 1. Rent for a year is $8,244, according to the agreement, which is pending approval by the farmland protection board.

The farmland board was provided a small office on the third floor of Berkeley County's administrative office building at 400 W. Stephen St. at no charge, but Schiavone said there is little room for meetings with more than one person at a time there.

Second-floor office space formerly occupied by the Berkeley County Council's attorney was informally offered to the farmland protection board at a rental rate of $12.11 per square foot in January, but Schiavone said the terms of the lease with the city are competitive with the county's rental rate.

Berkeley County Administrator Alan Davis told Schiavone in January that the rental rate proposed is what other tenants pay to lease space from the county, according to county council meeting minutes.

Schiavone said the nonprofit component unit of county government is allowed by state law to use some of the transfer tax revenue it receives for operating costs, which currently amount to an "overhead" rate of 9 percent.

Unlike some land conservation organizations, "we do not operate a gold-plated operation here," said Schiavone, who is employed part time by the farmland protection board.

More information about the farmland protection board can be obtained by contacting Schiavone at

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