It’s been nearly 40 years since states first took steps to permanently protect farmland from residential and commercial development pressures. Today, the 28 states that have programs to alleviate such pressures have permanently restricted 2,373,470 acres to agricultural use. Our region leads the way, with more than 797,000 acres protected in the eight Northeast states.
The most common form of land protection is PACE programs (purchase of agricultural conservation easements). These programs purchase, or facilitate the purchase of, development rights on a property, restricting the land’s future use to agricultural production. Farmers are given a payment that bridges the gap between the property’s fair market value and the fair market agricultural value in exchange for a permanent deed restriction precluding any use of the property that will negatively impact its agricultural viability.
The leadership the Northeast states have shown in land protection is particularly notable, considering the high value of land in the region and the aggressive growth of cities and suburbs. Not only have the eight states in the region protected more than a third of all of the land protected through PACE programs around the country, but all eight states rank in the top 15 in the nation in terms of the ratio of agricultural land protected versus agricultural land converted to residential or commercial use, together preserving nearly an acre of land for every two that have been lost to development.
Farming has changed significantly since most of these programs were developed, says Cris Coffin, New England director of American Farmland Trust. According to Coffin, the programs are at a point where they need to consider adapting to some of those changes in order to continue to protect the land and the farms that participate in the programs. “After having done this for 30 years in the Northeast, we are learning that there are a host of new challenges around land that has already been protected,” she explains.
One such issue relates to flexibility of use. The easements require that activities on the restricted land be limited to agricultural enterprises, but as more farmers consider ancillary projects to help keep their farms viable – for example, bed-and-breakfasts, cell towers or solar arrays – they often find that these activities are excluded, even if they have a relatively small footprint and the income they generate can help keep the farm sustainable. Even some agricultural uses aren’t considered acceptable under certain easements, such as the construction of large greenhouses that would alter how some of the land on a farm is used.
“Working lands easements are intended to allow for and support agriculture,” says Coffin, “but there’s a tension in protecting the physical needs of a farm and the continued need for viability of the farm.” A solar array might limit use of a small portion of a farm’s agricultural land, for example, but if it reduces the farm’s energy costs, or even provides an income stream by producing enough electricity to sell back to the local utility, that value to keeping the entire farm in operation needs to be weighed against the potential loss of the land resources.
Similarly, most easements don’t allow protected land to be subdivided. But if a 300-acre dairy farm with an easement is for sale and could be better kept in agricultural use if it were divided into parcels for a number of smaller, diversified farms, each with their own easements, that should be considered a viable option to keep the land preserved, says Coffin.
“Every state needs to look at the allowable uses under these programs and realize that agriculture continues to be a changing system, and that the programs need to evolve along with it,” she says. State programs can develop mechanisms to consider issuing special permits for compatible but perhaps nonagricultural activities that can be limited or revocable, she suggests. Each program should have a process by which applications for such activities are considered and evaluated, and should take into consideration the contribution the activity will make toward keeping the farm in operation. The programs need to strike a balance between protecting the land itself and protecting the farm as a viable, functioning business, Coffin explains.
Some states are already taking steps to do so. After a number of disputes between farmers and the Agricultural Lands Preservation Committee (ALPC), which oversees Massachusetts’ Agricultural Preservation Restriction (APR) Program, leaders are considering some changes to their process.
One farm was denied a request to construct an on-farm brewery on the same property where hops were being grown for the beer. Another was initially denied a permit to host an obstacle course race, despite the fact that the land it would be run on was not in active agricultural use.
Advocacy on the part of the Massachusetts Farm Bureau Federation and other organizations led to a proposal that would give the ALPC the power to oversee appeals when permits are denied and to take into consideration the financial viability of the farm itself, as well as protection of the land.
Such changes won’t just help land already in the programs, but will also help make more properties eligible for participation. “We’ve protected a lot of the easy land to protect,” says Coffin. “Now we are getting to more challenging parcels.” For example, nursery and greenhouse producers are important components of agriculture, but don’t necessarily use their land resources in the way these programs prescribe. This will mean reconsidering some of the limitations of existing programs.
Coffin says another issue is ongoing stewardship of land in the programs, in the form of monitoring and defending the land from threats. “We have to protect the public investment in these properties,” she says. “We have paid money to have this land protected; now we have to defend it.” That means funding programs that ensure the land is maintained in ways that live up to the intent of the program. In some cases, it may also mean providing funding for infrastructure on protected farms as a further investment in the future of the properties.
The programs should also consider how protected land can remain affordable, even in the face of increasing prices of farmland, says Coffin. When protected land is put up for sale, even with the development rights restricted, the price can often be out of reach for beginning farmers, limiting the sale to estate purchases or to established farmers. If the intent is to keep land affordable for young or beginning farmers, additional tools are needed to help.
Easements can further restrict the resale value of properties, or include an affirmative covenant to farm, which would prevent sales to an estate buyer. Ground leases, where the farmer doesn’t own the land but leases it from a land trust or municipality and can still build equity in the property, are another tool to help preserve affordability.
As the programs move forward, there’s also a need for better coordination between the state-administered funds and additional resources from the federal government that often make the purchase of easements possible. Working with two government programs has meant duplication of efforts for farmers at times, plus confusion about differing terminology around easements and restrictions. It would help if the federal programs, largely under the auspices of the Natural Resources Conservation Service, would recognize the long-standing capabilities of the state programs, and if the two could work together to streamline the administrative processes for farmers to enter into these arrangements, says Coffin.
Public programs are only one tool for protecting farmland; private land trusts have also had great success in securing deed restrictions on a significant amount of land in the Northeast. However, many of those easements pose the same challenges as those written by the state programs. Land trusts should also consider the need to adapt what they consider to be acceptable uses of land under restrictions to take into account the changing needs of farms, Coffin adds.
Various initiatives have successfully protected hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland in the Northeast from development, preserving these resources for generations. Coffin says that strengthening these programs to ensure that they protect not just the land itself, but resident farmers’ ability to keep their farms in operation, is a natural next step in the evolution of farmland protection.
State Agricultural Land Preservation Programs
The Farmland Preservation Program began in 1978 to purchase easements to protect active farms that contain a high percentage of prime farmland soils and are in established farm communities. The program is closing in on 300 participating farms and 40,000 protected acres. The state has a goal of protecting 130,000 acres through the program. Funding comes from the state budget as well as local municipalities, and federal programs have been leveraged to purchase easements as well. Learn more athttp://1.usa.gov/1nM7QKV.
The Farmland Protection Program has been in place since 1990, protecting 8,671 acres on 36 farms. The program helps farmers work with land trusts to develop protection easements, enroll in a farmland property tax program that substantially reduces the property’s annual tax burden, and develop business plans to protect the long-term viability of the farm. Details can be found at http://1.usa.gov/1hWHvqc.
The Agricultural Preservation Restriction Program was the first statewide program in the nation, established in 1977. To date, it has purchased development rights to more than 69,000 acres on 832 farms. To be considered for the program, farms must be at least 5 acres in size, have been actively devoted to agriculture for at least the two preceding years, and generate at least $500 in gross sales annually for the first 5 acres and $5 for each additional acre. The degree of threat to the land is also taken into consideration, as is the property’s long-term viability as an agricultural resource. Find more information at http://1.usa.gov/1iNbAZT.
The state of New Hampshire has purchased easements on 104 farms totaling 13,590 acres under three different programs since 1979. The current program is administered by the Land and Community Heritage Investment Program, an independent state authority, which provides grants to towns, cities, counties and some nonprofit organizations that submit proposals for land conservation projects. Details are available at http://lchip.org.
Since 1998, New York state has purchased development restriction easements on 209 farms, protecting nearly 48,000 acres of farmland. The state works closely with counties and towns to develop agricultural and farmland protection plans to maintain the economic viability of the state’s agricultural industry and its supporting land base, and assists in implementing these plans through the purchase of conservation easements. Priority is given to land that is highly suitable for agricultural use and is facing significant development pressure. Learn more at http://bit.ly/1fwz99P.
Pennsylvania leads the nation in the number of protected farms and acres of farmland, with more than 4,550 farms and 486,000 acres of land permanently preserved for agricultural production. State and county governments have been purchasing easements since 1989. Funded by the state’s Environmental Stewardship Fund and a tax on cigarettes, the Agricultural Conservation Easement Purchase Program has spent more than $1.2 billion on these easements.
To be considered for protection under the program, land is evaluated based on size of parcel, use of conservation and nutrient management, likelihood of conversion to other uses, and quality of cropland. Find out more at http://bit.ly/1n2byjC.
The Farmland Preservation Program has spent more than $31.6 million to protect nearly 7,000 acres on nearly 100 farms since 1985. In considering parcels for the program, criteria such as nearby development pressures, soil quality, protection of water supplies and quality, and viability of the farm are taken into account. Details are athttp://1.usa.gov/1n2bVur.
The Vermont Housing & Conservation Board (VHCB) administers a Farmland Conservation Program, with a focus on protecting contiguous blocks of farmland in traditional farming communities. Since 1987, more than 600 farms comprising 144,000 acres of agricultural land have been conserved with VHCB funds matched with federal funds. Evaluation is based upon soil quality, location, farm infrastructure, management and other resources brought to the project. Find more information athttp://www.vhcb.org/conservation.html.