Halting developers who dig into farms

Retired dairy farmer Robert Wookey watched for several years while much of the fertile land near his farm in Watertown, Conn., was bought up by developers. But when it came to offers on his 97 acres, he defiantly dodged the deals.

"I didn't want the land to go to a developer," says Mr. Wookey, who recently sold rights on his property to the state under a pilot preservation program. "We need food, don't we?"

Mr. Wookey and a growing number of other farmers around the country are enrolling in experimental programs aimed at halting the conversion of cornfields into car lots, shopping malls, sewer installations, and other projects.

Worried about the rapid shrinkage of cropland in the face of a growing demand for food, counties and communities in 35 states have adopted land-retention programs while other towns are groping for solutions to the problem.

These programs go beyond the usual tax incentives given to keep farmers in business. The efforts, which have brought mixed results and some opposition, range from state purchase of development rights to passage of stiff zoning laws.

"A few years ago, people weren't even thinking of preserving farmland," says Shepard Quate, of the American Farm Bureau Federation in Park Ridge, Ill. "Now we're seeing it take place in almost every state."

An estimated four square miles of cropland is lost to development every day, according the National Agricultural Lands Study (NALS), set up last June to study the problem. Some 3 million acres were lost each year between 1967 and 1977 the group says, one-third of which was prime agricultural acreage.

Continued urban sprawl is devouring cropland in parts of the industrial Northeast, while population pressures have cut into acreages in Sunbelt states such as Florida, Virginia, Arizona, and California.

Concern also is being echoed in Grange halls across Colorado, Wyoming, and other Western states over growth spurred by energy development.

To help retard cropland shrinkage and shore up the beleaguered family farm, at least four states -- Massachusetts, Connecticut, Maryland, and New Hampshire, as well as Suffolk County, N.Y., and King County (Seattle), Wash. -- are spending money to retain farmland.

Under these programs, the state or county buys the development rights to the land to help farmers stay in business and reserve their acreage for food production. The farmer still owns the land but can sell it only for agricultural use.

Not all these programs have proved successful. New Jersey agricultural officials scrapped a pilot program after it proved too costly, and Suffolk County, N.Y., officials are cutting back some of their funding. Officials in both states are studying alternative ways to protect farms.

Communities or counties in six Northeastern states are experimenting with the "transfer" of development rights: Builders buy the development rights to prime farmland and use them in areas more suitable for construction.

Tough zoning laws remain the chief preservation tool in the West and Midwest, according to NALS officials. Some areas prohibit development on fewer than 80 acres of land.

Still other local governments are mapping out agricultural districts to restrict growth in New York, Maryland, Virginia, Illinois, and Oregon.

At least four states -- Maryland, Oregon, Hawaii, and Wisconsin -- are using statewide programs combining tax incentives and restrictive zoning to rein growth.

Despite the push at the state and local levels, however, federal efforts to lasso rural development have run into stiff resistance.

Last month, members of the US House of Representatives rebuffed a bill aimed at providing technical and financial assistance for pilot preservation programs around the country. Opponents of the move worried it would be the first step toward federal controls on use of private land.

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