12/02/07 — County managaer discusses urbanization and agriculture in Wayne

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County managaer discusses urbanization and agriculture in Wayne

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on December 2, 2007 2:17 AM

Faced with the need to balance agriculture and urban development, Wayne County Manager Lee Smith believes that 2008 will prove to be a pivotal year for farmers.

"In the last 12 months I've watched two major commercial and 20 major residential developments built where almost one year ago, cotton, corn, tobacco and soybeans were growing. I'm not saying that's a bad thing, but all those areas were either farm or forest land, and where else is that going to be done? We're not producing more land," he said.

Fortunately, he continued, 2007 also has seen an increase in farmers' involvement in the those decision-making processes.

"2007 has really turned into the agriculture year. I've really seen (the farmers) step up. They're coming to the table," Smith said. "And I think in 2008, you'll see those folks come forward even more."

And, he added, that's exactly what's needed. Developers and industry leaders are already at the table. Now farmers and other members of the agricultural community need to join them.

"There's going to be conflict, but they've got to work together," Smith said. "Growth is happening here in Wayne County. Are you going to be part of it, or are you going to let it happen to you?"

The problem, he continued, is one rooted both in county government and in the agricultural community.

"I'm not saying in economic development we've ignored agriculture, but we haven't addressed it like we should have," he said. "Most people don't realize how big of a business it is. It's a global industry."

He explained that based on the 2000 census figures, Wayne County has an annual economy of about $3 billion. Of that, he said, farming, forestry and fiber production and all other agriculture-related businesses account for $644 million -- about 22 percent. Agriculture also accounts for more than 12,000 jobs -- again, about 20 percent of the county's total employment. And in the seven years since then, Smith added, agriculture's footprint has only increased.

But the problem, he continued, is that agriculture traditionally has not been treated like the big business it is.

"Farms are being squeezed by development and economic change. If we saw this in other industries, what would we do? I bet we would have public meetings, blue ribbon committees and would create new ordinances and laws to protect that business. So what are we going to do to protect this business -- agribusiness?" Smith asked. "We're trying to recruit and retain industry. We're going to have to do the same thing for farmers -- if that's what we want."

Some solutions are already in the works.

Among those is a farmland preservation study that the county Cooperative Extension office is hoping to soon begin in order to help farmers and other landowners wishing to sell conservation easements on their properties.

Another is the countywide comprehensive plan that the county Board of Commission-ers is preparing to adopt in early 2008.

Included in that 12-part effort is a piece on growth management and the need to encourage town-and-country development.

That means, Smith explained, identifying and planning for areas that should remain rural and agricultural, and areas where urban development should be allowed. The plan also would encourage farming alternatives such as agri-tourism and the continued use of the voluntary ag district program.

But, he continued, one of the most effective tools will likely be something most in the agricultural community have shied away from -- zoning.

"Zoning to farmers has been a four-letter word, but I have seen them opening up to the idea and saying yeah, we've got to protect ourselves," Smith said. "Zoning is a protective measure."

However, he continued, ensuring agriculture's future in Wayne County also is going to take the cooperation of the various municipalities, especially Goldsboro -- another area he hopes will improve next year.

"I think in 2008 there's going to have to be open discussion between the municipalities and the county as to what their growth patterns are going to be. I know that's a very sensitive subject, but we need to talk about it," Smith said.

And when they do, he added, the farmers need to be at the table, weighing in on issues of water and sewer, transportation, schools and economic development.

"They are each one part of the equation," Smith said. "They've got to work together."