Section 23. (a) The secretary of environmental affairs shall establish a program to assist the commonwealth in the acquisition of agricultural preservation restrictions as defined in section 31 of chapter 184, for land actively devoted to agricultural or horticultural uses as defined in sections 1 to 5, inclusive, of chapter 61A. The commissioner of agricultural resources may from funds appropriated to carry out this section, or received from other sources, pay any agricultural land owner for a project submitted by a city or town and approved by the agricultural lands preservation committee established by section 24 such amount as is determined by the agricultural lands preservation committee to be equitable in consideration of anticipated benefits from such project but not to exceed the difference between the fair market value of such land and the fair market value of such land restricted for agricultural purposes pursuant to this section. Title to agricultural preservation restrictions shall be held in the name of the commonwealth; provided, however, that a city or town in which such land is located which provides assistance satisfactory to the agricultural lands preservation committee, including but not limited to providing of funds or portions thereof toward the purchase of such restriction, the providing of legal services and the enforcement of the preservation restriction, shall hold title to such land jointly with the commonwealth. Projects shall be administered by conservation commissions in cities and towns in which such commissions have been established, or in a city, by the city council or its delegated agency subject to the provisions of the city charter, or in a town, by the board of selectmen or its delegated agency. The commissioner, subject to the approval of the secretary, shall establish procedures for management of such program.
(b) Notwithstanding any general or special law to the contrary, the department of agricultural resources, with the approval of the co-holder, if any, in its sole discretion, may grant to any owner of land subject to an agricultural preservation restriction held by the commonwealth a nonassignable special permit allowing nonagricultural activities to occur on the agricultural preservation restriction land, provided: (1) the land is being actively utilized for full-time commercial agriculture; (2) the permit is for a maximum of 5 years duration, which may, at the discretion of the department, be renewed; and (3) the agricultural lands preservation committee finds that the grant of a special permit will not defeat or derogate from the intent and purposes of retaining the land for agricultural use and preserving the natural agricultural resources of the commonwealth and that the agricultural preservation restriction owner meets all requirements pertaining to special permits contained in the agricultural preservation restriction agreement form presently utilized by the commonwealth at the time of application for the special permit.