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Westmoreland trust to buy, preserve rural, scenic land

Rich Cholodofsky
| Wednesday, May 2, 2012, 6:14 p.m.

More than a year after Westmoreland County secured a state grant for a new land preservation program, county leaders will begin an effort to protect some rural and scenic properties from development.

Commissioners on Thursday are expected to form the Westmoreland Land Trust, a nonprofit organization charged with the purchase and conservation of property deemed as environmentally significant.

Specific areas have yet to be identified.

"It was the No. 1 priority identified in the comprehensive plan," said Ted Kopas, chief of staff for Commissioner Tom Balya. "People told the commission they wanted to preserve the rural character of the county."

Commissioners will name a 23-member board of directors that will include several elected officials -- state Reps. Ted Harhai, D-Monessen, and John Pallone, D-New Kensington. Also expected to be named to the land trust's board are Alex Graziani, head of Smart Growth Partnership of Westmoreland County, county planning Director Larry Larese, Unity Supervisor Mike O'Barto and Kopas.

That board will be responsible for determining just how the land trust will operate and what basis will be used in identifying properties for purchase, said county solicitor R. Mark Gesalman.

"The board will adopt the parameters of how it will operate," Gesalman said.

It will have $363,000 to start its work.

That money comes from a $1.75 million state grant received in September 2006 for conservation programs. Commissioners earmarked the $363,000 to form the land trust.

Kopas said the state grant is seed money, and more will be raised. Before any of the state grant is spent, the county must contribute $180,000 in matching funds.

That money could come in the form of a land grant, Kopas said.

"There will be a fundraising component to this, and there will be landowners who want to donate to the trust," Kopas said.

The goal of the trust is to identify land that has a scenic or rural nature that should be preserved and protected against development.

County officials said that was the top sentiment from residents who participated in a $250,000 study of future needs for Westmoreland.

There are other vehicles in place to preserve farmlands and other agricultural lands but none that offered options to maintain generally rural or scenic parts of the county.

"This land trust fills a niche that currently isn't met," Kopas said.

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