January 17, 2001 | By: Aimee D. Heald

Urban sprawl is a common term these days. Farmland and open space is becoming scarce and the expansion of urban areas and new commercial development is not the only reason.

Farmers and policymakers want to protect farmland, but also protect the local farm economy. Some cities, like Lexington, have tools to protect farmland such as urban service districts. Urban growth boundaries and other methods to direct state funding to certain projects that minimize sprawl also can help achieve results.

However, there are some other unique tools that Jeff Edgens, University of Kentucky natural resources policy specialist, suggested to protect farmland and the farm economy.

"Production expenditures have been going up since 1990 and it's getting more and more expensive to stay in the farming business, especially for small farmers," Edgens said. "I believe there are ways to help these small producers keep their land and stay in business."

Edgens suggested that performance zoning could help the problem by measuring things like residential densities, the amount of the impervious surface layer, the height and bulk of structures in a district, etc. Those calculations could help planners recommend stronger buffers between some land uses and others based on use intensity.

"I think one of biggest problems is the estate tax," he said. "It not only weakens agriculture, but removes wildlife habitat as well. It encourages spending, not saving. So farmers may want to pay down the estate to minimize the tax bite"

Edgens said the estate tax annually generates about $19 billion, but that's only one percent of federal revenues. Many times this tax forces heirs to liquidate property they don't want to sell because they can't afford the taxes. It can be discouraging for young farmers who want to stay in their family's business.

"Economist William Beach [of the Heritage Foundation] estimates the U.S. economy would average as much at $11 billion per year in additional economic output; create approximately 145,000 new jobs and personal incomes would rise an average of $8 billion per year above current projections if the death tax was repealed," Edgens said.

Another way to protect farmland is to eliminate subsidies that encourage sprawl. Edgens said cities need to consider privatizing water, sewer, natural gas and solid waste systems as a way to control growth. Reducing unnecessary regulations that drive businesses to other communities also would help.

Encouraging farmland and open space protection through private land trusts is yet another way to protect land. Some communities have seen great success in protecting farmland through private means.

"We also need to strengthen private property laws for individual landowners," Edgens said. "Markets work best with well-defined property rights."

It's also important to advance opportunities for new agricultural technologies and global markets. Farmers and industry alike can benefit from having barriers removed that are disincentives for developing new technology.

Perhaps the greatest tool for protecting farmland and open space is increasing the farmer's knowledge of the local planning process.

"Farmers understand their operation better than anyone and know the unique nature of agricultural production," Edgens said.

Farmers need to communicate with each other what they want in their community and then take those concerns to the local planner or commissioner. If farmers are educated about the zoning process and they make their voices heard, they can have an influence on local policymaking. Egdens said it's important for the farmers to be involved in the process from the beginning because it's unlikely a planning commission will make an eleventh-hour policy change.


Jeff Edgens 606-666-2438 ext. 238