Silos vs. subdivisions

As more and more farmland is plowed under for housing developments, people wonder how to make room for both the cows and the kids.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

For years, America's urban areas have been letting out their overalls, spreading into the surrounding countryside. As a result, developers and farmers are caught in a tug of war, both sides using "this land is my land" as a theme song.

Developers say the need for housing is growing. Agriculturists contend that it's foolhardy to build subdivisions on some of the most fertile land in the world. So what can be done to save the land and meet the needs of cities? Can the two sides work together?

So far, there have been three main approaches: Preservation of farmland through agricultural zoning, easements, lower tax rates, and trusts of various kinds; promotion of smaller-scale, entrepreneurial farming in and near cities; and adoption of planning strategies that allow for more efficient sharing between agricultural and residential uses.

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But how well are these strategies working?

According to a study by the American Farmland Trust, 1 million acres of irreplaceable agricultural lands are lost to sprawl each year, with Texas losing the most high-quality land, followed by Ohio, North Carolina, Georgia, and Illinois.

The house-building industry, on the other hand, doubts that a farmland crisis exists. It points to the fact that American farms are producing more food than ever and that shelter is a growing national concern.

With the US population expected to grow 23 percent by 2020, some land currently being farmed will likely be needed for housing - but how much?

"A shortage of affordable housing is a critical national problem," says Gary Garczynski, president of the National Association of Home Builders. "In contrast, this nation has no food shortage. In fact, we export roughly 20 percent of our agricultural output."

Ralph Grossi, president of the American Farmland Trust, counters that while crop yields have dramatically increased since World War II, the rate of growth has leveled off in the past two decades. And while more US land is devoted to farming than any other purpose, with an estimated 945 million acres in production, much of the prime farmland is located near cities. That means it's a candidate for development.

Family farms under pressure

"Our ancestors were bright people," Mr. Grossi says. "They settled where the most fertile land was, so our cities are now growing on the best farmland in the country. If we continue to develop at our current rate, there won't be agriculture in some of these areas 15 or 20 years from now."

A cloud of uncertainty hangs over farming production. Biotechnology, environmental regulations, and Washington-based policies continue to change the livelihood, making it less attractive to farmers' children, who go off to college and often don't return. And when a drought occurs, farming families begin to wonder if the huge investments of time, labor, and money are worth it.

"It's increasingly difficult to convince the next generation to keep the farm in the family," says Mike Matson, a spokesman for the Kansas Farm Bureau.

Thus, when developers offer retirement-age farmers more money than they can imagine, many take it, as agonizing as that decision may be.

In Yolo County, Calif., two cities have taken a different approach. Davis and Woodland have signed an agreement that prevents a green buffer of more than 11,000 acres between them from being annexed by either community.

In some cases, governments and private conservation organizations simply buy up the property development rights from farmers so there won't be development. Twenty-four states have such programs on the books, and others will soon join them.

Local and state initiatives are responsible for protecting about 1 million acres, and now the federal government has significantly raised its support, providing $50 million for preservation in the latest farm bill.

Agricultural zoning for farmland isn't considered a true solution because zoning can be changed. Conservation easements provide more permanent protection.

With these easements (paid for by a variety of government and private sources), the farmer gets the difference between the "fair market value" and the "agricultural value" of his land.In exchange for this, a permanent deed prevents any use that limits agricultural viability. The farmer continues to own the land and can make his livelihood from it. He can pass the land on or sell it, but the land must remain in cultivation or as open space.

Still, this doesn't address the needs of people who'd like to live within realistic commuting distance of urban areas.

A patchwork of approaches

Achieving a mix between development and land preservation may be the real challenge.

One strategy is transferable development rights, which create greater building density in some areas in exchange for less in others. This tool has allowed Montgomery County, Md., to preserve its rural flavor by concentrating development along designated corridors.

This sort of division, says Bob Wagner of the American Farmland Trust, has a better chance of being implemented in the Farm Belt, where there's still time to debate the future of development.

In the East, though, the rural landscape is often a mishmash. Because of development pressures, agriculturally zoned areas may feel more residential than rural. But scattered, smaller farms at the urban edge hold potential for preserving land, creating a city-to-country transition zone.

They can also be profitable. Farmers around the country who learn what food shoppers in their areas want - and provide it - are responsible for the renaissance in farmers' markets and farm stands and the popularity of pick-your-own farms and orchards.

"There are a lot of cottage-industry opportunities," says Patty Cantrell, an economist at the Michigan Land Use Institute. In the past, farm policies at every level have promoted large-scale production and yields.

But by intensively growing high-value crops such as tomatoes, strawberries, and artichokes, a farmer can make a decent income on much less land than required for corn or soybeans. "Although farmers may not get that high a price, it's local, they don't have a lot of transaction costs, so it can still be good for their bottom line," Ms. Cantrell says.

A new idea is pairing farmland and a subdivision into "conservation communities." A leading example of this is Prairie Crossing, near Chicago, which incorporates an organic farm and a subdivision. (See below.)

"If you give people a view of preserved farmland, they're willing to live on a smaller lot," says Randall Arendt, a conservation planner.

But some people say that putting housing developments among farms is part of the problem in the first place. Jim Lively of the Michigan Land Use Institute calls this type of "solution" a cosmetic fix.

"It's what we call 'well-designed sprawl,' " he says. "And if farmers don't perceive that the area around them is primarily an agricultural area, but is instead becoming residential, they tend to move out."

That decision could be triggered by anything from frustration over driving a tractor on now-busy roads to calls from neighbors complaining about farm smells.The latter can be especially disturbing for long-time farmers, who were there first.

The first few new neighbors may be comfortable coexisting with farmers, but then more arrive, looking for an idealized country life. "The land values go up, the roads get improved, and you run into more and more issues," Wagner says. "It's important to be on top of this and recognize what's happening before it's too late, because eventually the suburban community will always win out."

To prevent this, some states have passed right-to-farm ordinances that keep towns from unreasonably regulating normal agricultural practices.

In other instances, "I think some communities would like to see farms become museum pieces and just be something for people to look at," says Rich Hubbard of the Massachusetts Department of Food and Agriculture. "But we want them to continue as dynamic operations."

In some cases, nonprofit groups step in and convert commercial farms into nonprofit agricultural assets that practice community-supported agriculture. Using this approach, local buyers support local growers by purchasing shares in the harvest that cover operating expenses.

Such farms create multiple public benefits, acting as quasi parks and educational institutions that also donate part of what is grown to homeless shelters, food pantries, and school lunch programs.

"If the land is protected," says Brian Donahue of the 400-member Land's Sake farm in Weston, Mass., "I see no reason why there couldn't be hundreds or thousands of acres surrounding American cities being farmed in this way."

Is it a farm or a subdivision? It's both

Since opening in the mid-1990s, Prairie Crossing has attracted attention as a possible model for integrating farmland with suburban housing.

It's a 677-acre subdivision located in Grayslake, Ill., about 40 miles from downtown Chicago, near a rail corridor. And it appeals to people who want access to the city but like a semirural lifestyle. Houses are clustered, leaving large expanses of the property in open space and agricultural land.

House lots range from less than a quarter of an acre to half an acre. "Each house looks out onto open land in at least one direction, so residents feel that they have more land than they actually do," explains Vicky Ranney, who, with her husband, George, developed the property.

The Ranneys are not farmers (Mr. Ranney is a lawyer and former steel executive), but they have long enjoyed good relations with their farming neighbors and wanted to see the area's rural character maintained.

In the 1970s, a developer planned to build 3,000 houses on the property, and that set off a 15-year legal battle with local officials. Finally, the number of proposed homes dropped to 1,600, but even that was too many for the Ranneys and their neighbors, who found a financial backer and bought the tract for $5 million.

To date, 270 houses priced from under $200,000 to $600,000 have been sold, with the total number of house lots capped at 362. A small retail village, with offices over storefronts, is planned on a commercially zoned parcel across the street. About 135 acres is under cultivation by a salaried farm manager, with 15 acres reserved for a community organic farm.

Until now, most of the farming has been subsidized by the company that owns the land. But once the development is completed, the farming operation must be self-sufficient, Mrs. Ranney says.

Since the land is limited by an agricultural easement, that could mean growing Christmas trees or finding another more profitable use than cultivating low-margin crops such as soybeans or corn.

Prairie Crossing isn't the only development to take this sort of approach. It has begun to take root in other areas, too.

Outside of Michigan City, Ind., Tryon Farm is a condominium development situated on what used to be a 170-acre family farm. There are no lawns, only open spaces with natural prairie plants and alfalfa. A former dairy barn has been converted into a community center.

And in Marineon St. Croix, Minn., the focus of the Jackson Meadow development at the edge of the Twin Cities metro area is on natural landscapes and clumps of homes that resemble farmhouses. The houses face one another across public green space, access roads run behind, and more than 70 percent of the 173 acres are left open.

The basic theme underlying the creation of these communities is conserving America's agricultural heritage.

Ranney is convinced that small organic farms hold great promise near cities. A study of the Chicago area found that the region consumes $60 million to $80 million of organic produce each year, but no more than 3 percent of it is locally produced.

Customers at Prairie Crossing's organic farm purchase memberships, which are really lines of credit of $200, $300, or $500 for use in buying fresh produce throughout the growing season.

Conventional, large-scale farming, with its big equipment and big debts, isn't suited to the urban edges, Ranney says, because the neighbors don't like it and it yields too little profit, given the land's development value.

"But it's a whole different ball game in organic," she says, pointing out the greater profit and jobs per acre and the potential for direct marketing to large numbers of nearby customers.

And, oh yes, it's more human scale, she points out: "You get to know the farmers."

A workable solution

When large tracts of agriculturally zoned land are slated for development, residents don't have to feel that they are completely losing out. With a lot of patience and flexibility, everyone in the community can benefit from the result.

Take, for example, Lee Alpert's work on a 5,600-acre project south of Denver. Mr. Alpert, a developer, took part in more than 100 meetings with homeowners, citizens' advisory groups, community leaders, and county engineers and planners during a three-year effort to win public approval for The Canyons in Castle Rock, Colo.

Initially, the plan called for building 12,000 homes, three golf courses, and 9,000 square feet of office space where cattle once grazed. Things changed dramatically, however, after the community meetings.

Now, the 15-year master plan calls for clustering 2,500 homes, eliminating a golf course and all commercial development, and creating a 500-acre nature preserve that not only will capture water, but could help restore lost wildlife habitat.

This plan was also influenced by discussions with environmentalists, biologists, and water engineers, who saw an opportunity to use retention ponds instead of a more traditional storm-drain system to revive the dry landscape.

"Simply by allowing water to pool in these areas, the vegetation will come back," says Steve McCormick with RNM Architects and Planners, who is working with the development team. Once native vegetation is reestablished, antelope, deer, and other species are expected to return.

The developers also responded to citizens' concerns about the need for extra schools. Previous agricultural zoning allowed only one house per 35 acres, but this project called for greater density. So the developers donated land for three schools and agreed to contribute to the county's added educational costs.

Perhaps the most critical piece in the approval process, however, was the decision to preserve the open-space views.

Land formations and the nature preserve will be used to obscure the houses from motorists driving along Interstate 25.

"It just happens there are probably more people affected by this project from their cars than directly from their backyards," Mr. McCormick says.

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