Silver Spring Township land preservation program nearing 1,000 preserved acres

Tom Keller is the third generation of his family to live on his farm in Silver Spring Township, and he can be sure that it will stay farmland for generations to come.

Keller’s property along Old Stonehouse Road is among 15 in the township between Carlisle and Mechanicsburg that have been conserved over the past decade under a taxpayer-funded program pushing back on development.

“It’s going to continue,” he said of sprawl west of Harrisburg, “so this is just one way that we can kind of help at least preserve a little bit of what was here.”

Keller, 40, has 23 acres: four in Middlesex Township and 19 in Silver Spring Township. The 19 were approved for an easement in 2017 by Silver Spring’s Land Preservation Review Board.

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The board was created in 2014 following a 62% vote by township residents. A state law – Act 153 of 1996 – allows municipalities to tax residents to fund land preservation in and near urban areas.

Silver Spring Township’s tax is one 10th of 1% on earned income. For someone making $50,000, that’s $50 a year, said Vince DiFilippo, a member of the review board and the program’s architect.

DiFilippo, a former Cumberland County commissioner and Silver Spring Township supervisor, said he became a supervisor and led the preservation charge because predecessors were approving seemingly “nonstop development.”

The township is in a prime buffer spot between the ultra-developed Harrisburg suburbs that run from the Susquehanna River west to Mechanicsburg and the sprawl of housing and warehouse development surrounding Carlisle, though it still has plenty of business and residential development of its own off the Carlisle Pike.

“Cumberland County has some of the best farmland in the world,” said DiFilippo, 66, “and Silver Spring has some of the best farmland left in the county.”

Milkweed Meadows Farm

Milkweed Meadows Farm is part of Tom Keller’s preserved land in Silver Spring Township.

Ben Orner

Landowners interested in preservation apply to the review board, and the process takes about 12-18 months. Steps include township review, appraisal, surveys and sometimes environmental studies.

The tax money collected is used to purchase a conservation easement on each property. The applicant still owns the land but is compensated for allowing the township to secure it from development.

“Once the property is preserved, then it’s preserved for perpetuity,” DiFilippo said, “and trying to get that reversed is really next to impossible.”

Each property is appraised at current value, then compared to the maximum value it could get if it were developed. The applicant is then paid somewhere between those numbers.

The township brings in about $900,000 annually for the program, DiFilippo said, and that is currently enough money to keep it going.

The 15 currently preserved properties total 777 acres. Eleven more are in the application process and would put the total acreage over 1,500. A celebration for hitting 1,000 acres will likely come in early 2025, DiFilippo said.

Preserved land Silver Spring Township PA

Land shaded dark green on this map of Silver Spring Township is preserved from development under the township’s or Cumberland County’s programs. Red-shaded land is in the process of being preserved. 

Ben Orner

Not all land in the program is farmland. It can be wild habitats, scenic vistas, even small lots, although most people preserve agricultural land or woodland. Keller and neighbor Justin Klingler have even reverted some of their agricultural land back to natural open grassland.

“Right around the house we have some meadows planted – like native meadows – and we’re working to enhance and restore the wood lots back to native species,” said Klingler, 42, a middle school science teacher.

He lives on 10 acres with his wife, Lisa, and two children, that were carved from a larger property his family has owned since the 1940s. All of Klingler’s 10 acres, the majority of which are farmland, are in Silver Spring Township’s preservation program, and his father hopes to enter his adjacent 35 acres soon.

Preserving protects the “rural character” of the area, Klingler said, as farms nearby go up for sale or become land for development.

“It’s keeping the land as it is and as it was when my grandfather had it,” he said.

Keller’s passion for conservation traces to his childhood in adjacent Middlesex Township, hunting, trapping and hiking. He is a wildlife biologist now, and he bought his farm – formerly owned by his grandparents – in 2015.

He, wife Tina, and daughter, Eme, 13, farm on much of the land while keeping some as wildlife habitat. The idea is to preserve open and natural space and honor the “agricultural heritage” of the Cumberland Valley as new housing and commercial projects pop up, Keller said.

“Obviously in our valley and our county right now, there’s just a huge push for development,” Keller said. “And I’m not saying that’s a bad thing [but] that land can’t be returned to wild spaces, it can’t be returned to agriculture.”

Keller Klingler preserved land sign

A sign marks land preserved by the Keller and Klingler families in Silver Spring Township.

Ben Orner

Preserving farmland helps maintain the food supply, DiFilippo said. Less development also means fewer taxes because governments don’t need to upkeep new road infrastructure and there are fewer new students in schools.

Development interests, understandably, are against taxpayer-funded land preservation programs.

“It’s the idea of using public funds to work against private industry,” said Jim Helsel, a Realtor based in Camp Hill and a past president of the Greater Harrisburg Association of Realtors.

Using tax dollars to fund these initiatives goes against the real estate profession, Helsel said. The “vast majority” of real estate agents aren’t opposed to land preservation in general, but using taxpayer money for it is too far, even though landowners are voluntarily entering the program, he said.

“We don’t think that the government should be the one to tell us what we should preserve,” Helsel said.

Helsel, who is also a past president of Pennsylvania’s Realtors association and a past treasurer of the national Realtors association, is unsure of the impact that land preservation has had on development in Cumberland County so far.

But he said supply is crucial to solving a housing shortage. Cumberland was the second-fastest growing county in Pennsylvania by population percentage last year, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

By raw population, the county ranks third in growth since 2020, gaining more than 11,000 new people.

Taking away developable land will hurt the area’s ability to “provide housing and homes for people who need them,” Helsel said.

Keller understands this conundrum and why housing developments can be someone’s avenue to home ownership and “the American dream.” But Silver Spring Township is trying to “strike a balance” where some parts remain preserved in their natural state and other parts support a growing economy and population, he said.

He also knows he could have gotten more money for his land from a developer, but that wasn’t the point. Keller said he would have done it for free if the program didn’t exist, because in the end, he wants his daughter to inherit the property free of development.

“I’m sure it would be millions of dollars which I won’t get, but I don’t care,” Keller said. “I would much rather see this preserved in perpetuity than I would get a whole pile of money and then watch it turn into a development or a warehouse.”

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