12/31/09 — Preserving farmland a top priority

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Preserving farmland a top priority

By Steve Herring
Published in News on December 31, 2009 1:46 PM

More than 54,000 acres of Wayne County farmland vanished between 1997 and 2007 -- gobbled up by development and a growing population.

But Wayne County officials are looking at a plan intended to educate the public on the need to preserve farmland and guide local governments on how to do just that.

Farming has always been important to Wayne's economy and despite changes over the years, agriculture still forms one of its pillars.

Wayne's gross agricultural sales topped $3.88 million in 2008 -- the latest year figures are available for -- and provided jobs for 20.4 percent of the county's workforce.

To better understand agriculture's importance and the pressures and challenges it faces, a Farmland Preservation Plan was developed and written by officials at the Lois Britt Agribusiness Center at Mount Olive College.

The plan was unveiled earlier this month to county commissioners and is currently being reviewed by the American Farmland Trust Fund.

Once the plan is approved by the trust fund, it would then fall to commissioners for their approval. Wayne would become the first county in the eastern part of the state to adopt such a plan.

County Extension Service Director Howard Scott said he sees the plan as a complement to the county's comprehensive land use plan. Such planning is important in order to strike a balance between development and protecting the county's agricultural tradition, Scott said.

According to the report, North Carolina is among the fasting growing states in the nation. The increased population translates into more schools, housing, shopping areas and infrastructure to support it. That, in turn, means less farmland.

The report points out that non-farm residents, as well as farmers, believe local government should take steps to protect farmland. That is based on the belief that farmland enhances a community's appearance and is an asset to the environment.

The report makes a number of recommendations, including that commissioners consider increases in sale taxes before increasing property taxes.

It also suggests the creation of an awareness campaign to educate the public about the important role agriculture plays in the county's economy. The Extension Service already has launched such a campaign called "We Dig It."

The plan also seeks expansion of the county's Voluntary Agricultural District program.

Currently, landowners can pay a $50 fee and have qualified farmland placed in such a district for a period of 10 years. At the end of 10 years, the land can be left in the district or removed. In order to remove it prior to that time, the landowner must submit a request to the committee that oversees the program. During those 10 years the land has to be used for farming. It can be sold, but only for use as farmland. The committee is appointed by county commissioners.

Landowners would be permitted to sell a parcel to a family member to build a dwelling.

Also, being in such a district lets people who buy land within a quarter mile know that there is an active farm nearby. That helps to cut down on the number of nuisance complaints about the odors or equipment traffic that can be associated with farming, Scott said.

It also helps with education, he added.

There are 12,090 acres (265 tracts) currently in the program, he said. Scott hopes that several thousand more acres will be added soon.

The plan calls for the agriculture district program to be expanded. Under an expanded plan, the property could not be taken out of the district until after the 10-year period has ended. That would provide landowners with more points when applying for farmland preservation funding, Scott said.

"There is no way to farm and compete with what developers would (pay for the land)," he said.

That would be addressed in the plan by allowing the landowners to sell the development rights to the land, but not the land itself, to a state or federal farmland preservation organization.

For example, if the land is worth $3,000 per acre and a developer is willing to pay $7,500 per acre, then the landowner would receive most of the difference and maintain ownership of the land, Scott said.

A federal stipulation is that the land would have to remain farmland in perpetuity and could not be developed. Scott said it has not been decided if the local restrictions would apply for 20, 30 or 50 years.

The plan would be applied to rented farmland as well.

Along with preserving farmland, the plan would help farm families keep their land and pass it on from generation to generation.

Also, it would protect the county's green space, something that county residents have said is important, Scott said.

"People like living next to a farm," Scott said. "They know what will be there next year and don't have to worry about it being a mobile home park or something else. It protects the value of their (neighbors') property, too."

Scott emphasized that the plan has nothing to do with zoning.

Another recommendation in the study is the creation of an agricultural marketing position, through the Extension office, to coordinate the growing needs of what Scott calls a diversified farming community and niche markets.

An example would be someone wanting to grow food organically or a part-time farmer who might want to sell directly to a market, Scott said.

Other recommendations include:

* Development and promotion of a comprehensive youth Agricultural Development Program.

* Making technical and business training readily available for farmers that best fits farmers' work schedule and learning style.

* Educating farmers, landowners and non-farm residents on available farmland preservation tools.

* Engaging local and governmental organizations in the preserving, support and promotion of farming and agribusiness in the county.

* Supporting a Wayne County "Cost of Community" services study. The study would be an "inexpensive and reliable tool" to measure the fiscal relationship between existing and proposed land uses in the county.