Saturday, May 12, 2007

Farmland Preservation 101 - Part II

Here's another installment of the farmland preservation primer from Jim Hunter @ Hunter's Greens CSA. Excellent info. here folks. Put this in your toolkit and use it to help us build a community coalition to save our farms....


Write, E-mail, or call your commissioners. Tell them that you want local food. Tell them not to convert 2000 more acres (ed. 58000 acres total) of the county's best farmland to high density urban housing when they pass the 2007 Comprehensive Plan Revision. Ask two friends to do the same.

FARMLAND PRESERVATION 101 Session 2: How Can it be Done?

Maybe the first question to ask about preserving farmland in Clark County is, "Can it be done?" And my answer would have to be "Maybe." This article will discuss both the technical mechanisms by which farm land can be preserved, and the practical political steps that need to be taken to get the effort started.


Agricultural zoning is the present mechanism by which land is set aside for agricultural purposes. Zoning restricts land in Agricultural Resource zones from being developed for other purposes. A big problem with zoning is that it can be changed by County Government, which is the problem that we are currently facing. But it is also a permanent problem, because as long as it can be changed, it provides an incentive for landowners to lobby for that change to increase the development value of the land, and it always leaves a doubt in the mind of landowners that
maybe some day this land will be worth much more.

County Government, at this time, appears to be making the argument that agriculture is not viable on the lands it seeks to incorporate into the Urban Growth Boundaries. It appears to be arguing, therefore, that the Agricultural Resource Zone is no longer relevant and is overly restrictive. Some will argue that they have a legitimate case, and I will rebut that case in a future article.


Proponents of development will argue that there is no alternative to development, because land values are so high that no one will buy land for farming. The following supplements are the answers we can give to that argument. The mechanisms are in place to use these tools if the county would incorporate them into their land use plans.

A more reliable alternative to preserving at least some farmland is to set aside farmland through "Agricultural Conservation Easements." These are agreements between the current landowner and a conservation group or government agency that permanently dedicate the land for agricultural use. The purpose of agricultural conservation easements is to keep land available for farming. The agreement runs with the deed, so that if the land is sold or passed down to the next generation, the agreement continues, usually in perpetuity. Landowners can donate easements, or groups or agencies can purchase them from the landowner. The value of the easement is the difference in the value as farmland and the value at which it could be developed for other purposes. There are significant tax benefits for donating an easement.

An agricultural conservation easement can probably never get a landowner what they could get if they wait for a rezone and sell for residential or commercial development. However it offers an alternative way to liquidate some or all of the equity in their property while keeping the land in agriculture. Also, they can do it now, rather than banking on future development.

Both state and federal governments currently have money available for the purchase of agricultural conservation easements. The State is having difficulty spending the money. However, I believe both levels require a local match either from government or a qualified conservation group. So participation at a local level is needed.

In a world in which farmland conservation easements are in place, the speculative value of farm land is removed from the picture. Once compensated for their development rights, farm families wishing to retire or leave the industry now are selling only to folks who wish to farm the land, which should make the price of farmland much more affordable for beginning farmers, and open the way for more medium sized, commercially viable sustainable farms in Clark County.


Once land is rezoned for development, agricultural conservation easements become impractical. The differential between the development value and the agricultural value becomes overwhelmingly expensive. Furthermore, it is unlikely that a government that has zoned land for development would participate in purchasing agricultural easements in those areas. While there may be large amounts of open land left in the county, where easements could be used, the best of the agricultural land is in the areas that are likely to be developed first, in the southwestern half of the county. So retaining lands currently zoned agricultural resource land is essential if agricultural conservation easements are to have a chance to preserve the best farmland in the County.


Agricultural conservation easements are not the only way to preserve agricultural land. Some experts recommend "development right exchanges" as a lower cost alternative. Under this idea, developers who want to develop in a particular area where they cannot currently develop can exchange rights to develop they hold somewhere else, for the right to develop in the desired area.

Another mechanism that is currently available to rural land owners is called "cluster development." Say a farm family owns eighty acres. They have development rights to subdivide the land into four twenty acre parcels within the AG 20 zone. The Cluster Ordinance allows them the alternative to divide it into three one acre parcels and one eventy-seven acre parcel. But, again, once lands are removed from the AG 20 zone, these options become irrelevant.


At the most basic level, what ordinary folks like us can do is to get the attention of our elected leaders, let them know what we think, and that we care enough to make a future electoral issue over it.

To this end, we need to turn folks out to the upcoming open houses and hearing on the 2007 Comprehensive Plan Revision, and get written comments into the Commissioners. Also at a basic level we need to roll up our sleeves and talk to folks about this issue and encourage them to join us.

I don't get much a view of the lay of the land from here in front of my computer in the basement of the Fifield House. So in order to get a sense about whether we can get anywhere with this, I propose the following.

If you are willing and able to join me in working on this, e-mail me with your plans for what you are prepared to do. If you write comments or attend an open house, e-mail me about what you did and how it went. If you are willing to contact two other people to get involved in helping es, e-mail me that you did and what you accomplished.

That should get us started.

Ideally, I believe that this is an issue around which we can build a coalition of consumers, environmentalists, farmers, conscientious rural land owners, conscientious real estate agents,and conscientious developers. That doesn't leave too many folks left on the other side.

It also means that we need take care that we're not slinging mud at potential allies, so as you talk and write, choose your words carefully (not something I have always been famous for). In a future article I'll write more about this coalition and how I envision building it.

Jim Hunter
Hunter's Greens CSA

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