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Farmland Preservation Takes Flight

In Michigan, a few fledgling efforts

August 31, 2006 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Pat Owen

Across America, citizens are working to protect rural landscapes and lifestyles

Third in a series

Farmland conservation programs are catching on across America , but they are just beginning to take off in Michigan. So far, voters in Northwest Michigan’s Acme and Old Mission Townships  as well as Ann Arbor and several townships in Washtenaw and Kent counties have approved small property tax increases that generate cash to buy the commercial and residential development rights of farmers who want to sell them.

By guaranteeing that at least some farmland will never be developed, these local programs protect rural landscapes and lifestyles, curbing sprawl and protecting rural communities’ environment and economy. They provide the capital farmers need to shift to more profitable agricultural enterprises or the cash they need to retire—which also allows them to sell their land to younger grower at prices both parties can afford.

The importance of farmland preservation extends from Michigan’s orchards, fields, pastures to the bedrock of its economy. The second largest sector of our state’s economy, agriculture accounts for one million jobs and $59.1 billion dollars annually, according to the state Department of Agriculture. In 2004, Michigan’s 50,000 farmers produced more than 200 commodities that generated $4.3 billion in farm gate receipts.

Yet sprawl is eroding the very soil on which this powerful economic engine depends. Between 1997 and 2002, suburban development claimed 300,000 Michigan acres of farmland, according to the U.S. Census of Agriculture. A study by Lansing-based Public Sector Consultants says that if things do not change, the state will lose an average of 30,000 acres a year through 2040.

Farmland preservation experts believe that farmland conservation could take root in Michigan’s soil. First, the sheer economic value of Michigan’s agricultural sector makes Michigan farmland an asset the state can ill afford to lose or diminish. Secondly, the rapid pace of sprawling development, which is consuming land eight times faster than the population is growing, has galvanized citizens to fight for the preservation Michigan’s environment and economy urgently needs. Third, many Michigan counties have farmland preservation laws on the books, which means that the legal capacity to preserve farm fields, orchards, and agricultural jobs is already in place. But few of the programs enjoy local funding sources, drastically reducing their effectiveness.

That is largely because one key ingredient—political leadership—is missing in so many communities. It is time for more local leaders to look at national trends and the inspiring example of places like Lancaster County, Penn., to better understand just what they are missing and how they and their neighbors can build similar programs in their own communities.

The New Norm
Across the country, Democrats and Republicans often wage vicious partisan battles, both in Washington and in many state capitals. But intense local commitment to farmland preservation is changing that. Since 2003, Congress has approved $303 million to provide matching grants to states and local governments for farm and ranchland preservation. And states, led by Pennsylvania ($102 million this year), Maryland ($87 million), and New Jersey ($87 million) also are spending generously. Local governments, too, are also making substantial investments. Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, for one, authorized spending $25 million this year for farmland protection.

In other words, at the local level, and, increasingly at the state and national levels, interest in farmland preservation is making cooperation between the two parties and between governments and business the new norm. That is because citizens, alarmed by the pace of both welcome and unwanted development around them, are increasingly pushing their elected leaders to respond thoughtfully and quickly to protect and enhance their way of life while building their economy.

“It’s not hard to figure it out,” notes Deborah Bowers, editor of Farmland Preservation Report, a respected monthly newsletter based in Street, Maryland. “Constituencies are angry about growth and development, the destruction of landscape, and destruction of a rural way of life.

“Politicians pick up on it,” Ms. Bowers adds. “They are asked by voters how many people can live here and not completely wreck the agricultural industry. They then start thinking about the fiscal realities all the development creates. And that’s the clincher.

“Because if politicians don’t spend money to preserve farmland,” she concludes, “they will need a lot more money for schools, road improvements, police, and fire protection. That’s when it call comes together for them. They ask planning staffs for information, and there are just many more politicians ready now to use that information and lead.”

A Closer Look: Lancaster County
A case in point is Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, a region so renowned for its Amish farms and verdant fields that in the mid-1980s the farm culture was as much a star in the love story-thriller movie Witness as were Harrison Ford and Kelly McGillis. The 1980s, though, also was a decade of striking population growth and housing development. By the mid-1990s, the very same farm where Witness was filmed came under threat as the county's population topped 450,000, almost 130,000 more residents than in 1970.

By then, however, Lancaster County was on its way to establishing what is generally regarded as the most successful farmland protection program in the nation. In 1980, the county established a farmland preservation program, and three years later hired staff to administer a purchase of development rights program. In the years since, the program has purchased easements on 791 parcels totaling slightly more than 68,000 acres.

The program works so well because, in 1992, at the insistence of residents and many in the farm and business communities, county planners wrote a new growth management plan. It called for adding more farmland protection measures, including establishing agricultural preserves—large areas of farmland protected from new development.

The plan encouraged the county's 60 municipalities, 18 boroughs, 41 townships, and Lancaster City to cooperate in establishing designated growth areas, where new, higher-density development would be encouraged. Leaders, working with local citizens, mapped out 13 growth areas; local governments were asked to write new zoning measures to limit development to one home for every 20 to 25 acres in agricultural areas. The plan has been updated twice, the first time in 1997, and the second this past April.

The program is not perfect, nor iron-clad. Three years ago the county audited development in local jurisdictions and found that just six of every 10 acres consumed for residential development were within the 13 growth areas. But since then, says Mary Frey, a principal planner with the Lancaster County Planning Commission, the goals of the master plan are inching closer to realization. Local governments have established and enforced effective agricultural zoning on much of the 411,000 acres of farmland, about 67 percent of the county's total land.

The 13 growth areas, totaling 31,000 acres, have room enough to accommodate the county's recent population increases and housing needs. Sixty percent of the land within the growth areas has water and sewer service, allowing for higher density, and 75 percent of the new homes are being built in the growth areas.

“We want to reach 85 percent by 2030, as well as reduce the amount of acreage used by dwellings built in rural areas," Ms. Frey notes.

"We have a strong building industry association in the county," she adds. "They were on board with this. A lot of people realize that if we enhance the growth areas with more density, more affordability, it takes the pressure off the farmland. You hear farmers and business people saying the same thing."

Catching on in Michigan
That conversation is starting to catch on in Michigan. Hopefully, an analysis done in the late 1990s by American Farmland Trust, which concluded that five critical agricultural regions in Michigan are imminently threatened by the loss of farmland, will be part of that dialogue. The study pointed to the fruit belt near Traverse City, which produces more tart cherries than any place in the United States, the “Fruit Ridge,” outside of Grand Rapids, which is a major producer of apples, and three other regions in the center and south of the state.

But, planners in Pennsylvania, California, and elsewhere where farmland preservation has grown into a significant political and economic force say that regardless of which way a local government decides to move to protect farmland, nobody is going anywhere unless considerable work is undertaken to educate farmers, the public, business leaders, and elected officials about the risks and benefits of any approach.

Jay Hoekstra, the planner with western Michigan’s Grand Valley Metro Council, agrees and echoes the experience of Lancaster’s farm preservationists.

“You have to build a consensus in the community,” Mr. Hoekstra said. “People have to feel like they’ve participated in making the decision. And they have to feel completely comfortable with the details.”

The hard reality is that, in Michigan, as in many other states, communities are reluctant to establish new zoning measures to protect farmland. The pressure from property rights groups who threaten legal action over what they view as seizures of private property have proved too great for many township and county boards to overcome.

But pressure from those wanting their towns and counties to take action to preserve farmland has also grown stronger. Armed with information showing the vital role agriculture plays in local and regional economies, and concerns about preserving adequate food supplies, farmers and other residents are starting to ask more questions about what can be done to reduce the loss of farmland.

This is Part three of a three-part series on farmland preservation programs across America. To read the rest of the series, please click on the page numbers at the top of this article

A longer version of this article was published in the Summer 2006 issue of the Planning Commissioners Journal. The full article is available to order and download at www.plannersweb.com/ag.html. Keith Schneider is editor and director of new program development at the Michigan Land Use Institute. Reach him at keith@mlui.org

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