Saving Farmland From Sprawl

  • DeKalb County, close to Chicago in Illinois, is facing rapid urban sprawl. (Photo by Lester Graham)

Some counties near big cities are trying to save farmland from being developed into sprawling suburbs. Lester Graham reports the problem is finding money to fund programs that would preserve the rural character of an area:


Some counties near big cities are trying to save farmland from being developed into
sprawling suburbs. Lester Graham reports the problem is finding money to fund
programs that would preserve the rural character of an area:

The real value of land as farmland is a lot less than what a developer will pay for the land
to use it to build strip malls, big box retail stores, or subdivisions of wallboard mansions.
Farmers are tempted to sell when it means they’d make more money off the land selling it
to developers than they would farming for the rest of their lives, but many feel they’re forced into the situation. They don’t really want to give up life on
the farm. They just feel they’d be foolish to keep farming when they could make so much
money selling to a developer.

Some counties that want to preserve the rural character of their area are putting together a program
that helps farmers by paying them some of that difference between farmland value and
development value. It’s called the purchase of development rights.

Usually, local governments, sometimes state, pay farmers to waive that right to develop
the land forever. No one can build on it. The land has to be kept as open space.

There are lots of reasons state, county and city and township governments might want to
do that. Some politicians want to make sure their communities continue to be surrounded
by scenic green space. Some want to preserve the rural character of their community.
Some want to make sure they have a source for locally grown food.

Scott Everett is with the American Farmland Trust. He says it can come down to simple
economics. Some politicians like purchase of development rights for lower taxes:

“Because we won’t have to add public services. Cows don’t go to school. Chickens don’t
dial 9-1-1. Corn, wheat and soybeans need a lot less fire and police protection than
residential development.”

Everett says purchase of development rights is a long term plan and if a county sees its
farmland might be threatened in the future, it better get busy now:

“In an urban-influenced county, you know, there’s a county next door to a big
metropolitan area maybe like Chicago, one of the things that really ought to be happening
to counties that are next to that county is some planning needs to take place. It
takes a very long time for a purchase of development rights program to take ahold.”

We found a place that fits that description exactly. DeKalb County is on the fringes of
the Chicago metropolitan area. The counties between it and the city are seeing incredible
development pressures. Farmland is being gobbled up at a rate almost unparalleled in the
nation. DeKalb County is trying to draw a line that would stop urban sprawl and allow only
carefully planned growth.

Pat Vary is a DeKalb County board member. She’s watched as counties closer to
Chicago have gone from farmland to urban sprawl in almost no time. She doesn’t want that to happen to
DeKalb County and she says most of the towns don’t want that:

“Most of the municipalities have said, ‘We want to grow this far, but we want to keep
green space around us and we don’t want to go much further than that.’ There’s lots of
pressure from developers right now.”

Vary, who’s also a biologist, says as the population grows and farmland is lost, she sees a
moment in the future where land that produces food is going to be a lot more valuable
than it is today:

“I really think that in about thirty years, forty years from now, that an acre of farmland in
DeKalb County will be worth more than an acre of downtown Chicago. You can’t eat
buildings. You can’t eat pavement. People are going to need to eat. I really believe it’s
critical, it’s vital to do something fairly fast.”

But, as we heard earlier, it takes a while to get a purchase of development rights program
rolling. It has to be funded, usually from several levels of government, and then you
have to persuade farmers that dedicating their land to only growing crops is the right
thing to do.

Scott Everett with American Farmland Trust says successful purchase of
development rights start out slowly, but gain popularity after everyone sees how it works:

“It’s one of these programs where once one farmer does it, the other farmers next door
and the neighboring farmers really start taking a look at it and saying to themselves ‘You
know, if they’re going to make the commitment, I will, too.'”

But Everett warns, if your county is one of those urban-influenced counties, if a
purchase of development rights program isn’t put in place and funded soon, your
farmland will be gobbled up by gridlock, strip malls, and dotted with residential suburbs
that often cost the government more in infrastructure and additional services than the new
real estate taxes will ever pay for.

For the Environment Report, this is Lester Graham.

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