Citizen groups saving US farmland from developers' bulldozers

On a warm windy day in the Berkshire foothills, Timberly Kutylo waves her arm at the six rolling acres that she and her husband cultivate. "This land could sell for a thousand dollars an acre -- a price we could never afford," she says. "If it wasn't for the land trust, we wouldn't be here at all," she adds.

Timberly and Ray Kutylo are not alone in having difficulty affording rural land in America. According to US Department of Agriculture (USDA) figures, the value of US farmland has quadrupled in the past 10 years: The average $196 price per acre in 1970 jumped to $790 in 1981. Nearly one-third of all farmland in America now is owned by nonfarming landlords. In addition, the recent USDA National Agricultural Lands Study showed that some 3 million farm acres are lost each year to development.

In other words, the amount of US farmland is shrinking and what is available often is priced so high that only developers, not farmers, can afford to buy it. Thus, for many Americans the prospect of owning one's own farm, or even a few rural acres, is a dream growing increasingly dim.

To help check the shrinking of their farmland areas, some states have enacted development-rights legislation that restricts purchase of agricultural land.In Massachusetts, if a farmer is being pressured to sell his land for commercial use, he can apply for a one-time payment from the state covering the difference between the value of the land as commercial real estate and as agricultural property. The state then requires that the land remain in agricultural use.

But some observers contend that such well-intended programs are nothing more than a drop in the bucket. And, they say, these programs do not help those nonlandowning families, such as the Kutylos, who want to gain access to rural land.

What has made a difference to individuals who want to buy rural land are community land trusts. Often starting with just a handful of local residents concerned with the rural nature of their community, the trusts grow into non- profit, public organizations devoted to the preservation of local agricultural land and the leasing of it to traditionally landless groups -- women, blacks, low-income families, and even middle-income individuals who find buying rural property beyond their means.

Currently 30 community land trusts exist across the country from California to West Virginia to Maine. Eight trusts operate in the New England states alone. Their sizes range anywhere from a handful of members and few hundred acres to more than 5,000 acres.

The trust from which Timberly and her husband lease their six acres is called the Valley Community Land Trust in the Pioneer Valley near Colrain, Mass. Formed in 1976, the trust owns two tracts of land totaling nearly 200 acres and leases parts of those tracts to three families.

Like other community land trusts, the Valley Community Land Trust maintains two objectives: to make rural land available to mid- and low-income people for housing and farming, and to maintain the agricultural nature of the land itself.

The leases are long term -- some as long as 99 years. They also are renewable and inheritable. And while the land remains the property of the trust , any equity that the tenant puts into the land, such as crops and buildings, remains the property of the lease and may be sold.

The Kutylos, for example, own the solar-heated trailer in which they live, as well as the fruit trees they have just put in. They are also entitled to cut wood for their own use from the 50 wooded acres they jointly lease with their two neighbors.

Robert Swann, considered the cofounder of the community land trust movement, started the first one -- the Georgia-based New Communities Inc. -- in 1968. It now is the largest black-owned, single-tract farm in the country. "The purpose of the trust," Mr. Swann says, "is not like that of land conservation groups or like communal land ownership. The idea here is a planning concept -- to acquire land and lease it to those people who will use it."

Unlike land conservancies, community land trusts do not attempt to limit growth altogether, but encourage the use and development of the land in ways best suited to the needs of the community.

Unlike communal land ownership, the trust is publicly owned and not limited to those individuals actually living on the land. In fact, members may belong to a community land trust for the purpose of donating their land or lending personal funds for its use. The Valley Community Land Trust, for example, maintains 66 members, but only three families currently live on trust land.

The concept of a community land trust is flexible enough to accommodate the needs of varying communities. While most trusts operate in rural communities, several are being formed in urban areas such as Boston, Detroit, and Cincinnati. Their purpose is to acquire inner-city land to offset high urban housing costs for trust members.

The 10-month-old, privately funded American Farm Lands Trust is one of the few farm-preservation organizations with a national focus. But executive director Robert Gray says the small community land trust fills a distinct niche in the fight to preserve American farmland. "Eventually all these land battles are fought on an individual, parcel-by-parcel basis," he says. "And the community land trusts are equipped to do that very well," he adds.

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