Plan to preserve farmland before Legislature
February 12, 2010
Utah has a long history of industries working to bring natural resources up from under the ground, yet every year more of one of the most valuable resources is permanently covered up.
Fertile soil in Utah is increasingly paved over and seeded with lawn for housing, commercial and industrial developments each year. Rep. Jack Drexler, R-North Logan, wants to make it easier for farmers to conserve productive land.
His House Bill 102, the Agriculture Sustainability Act, would use the "rollback" taxes developers pay when building on agriculture land to "accumulate and accrue" for purchasing the development rights from owners who wish to see their land preserved as farmland.
"Green Belt" land receives a special tax rate to help farmers, Drexler explained. Developers already are required to pay five years worth of tax revenue at the new rate as a disincentive to turn an apple orchard into an Applebee’s.
Drexler’s bill would pass more of that money along to farmers interested in conservation by allowing the state to purchase their development rights.
For many producers who spent their careers surviving drastic swings in the market for fruits, vegetables, milk, meat and other products, selling off their property is their only way of funding retirement. But some of them would like to see the farm, orchard or ranch stay if they could only afford to do so.
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Drexler said selling off the development rights wouldn’t be as profitable as selling to a developer, but it’s a way to help owners do something they want to do anyway.
"It may not solve the problem, but it will help dramatically," Drexler told The Park Record on Tuesday.
"There’s a public benefit because we keep a sustainable agriculture industry in our state," he added.
The program would be completely voluntary and could not conflict with any rules or regulations imposed by other agencies, counties or municipalities.
Interested parties would also have to be approved by the Utah Conservation Commission in order to ensure the program was preserving valuable farmland and not marginal land. The idea, he said, is to encourage development on marginal land, and preserve fertile ground.
In his view, this option increases property rights. Right now, many farmers are forced to choose between passing their land on to their children and being financially secure in retirement. This bill would give them more choices and freedom.
One doesn’t need to go far to see that this bill is needed, he added. Close to 5,000 acres of land was taken out of agricultural production in Salt Lake County last year alone, he said.
Once it’s gone, it’s gone forever. No one is going to tear down a house or scrape up a parking lot to grow hay. And our state needs local produce, he added.
Orchards used to dot all of Utah County. Now suburban sprawl has pushed fruit growers out in all but the southern tip of the county, and if Santaquin is more densely developed, they’ve got nowhere else to go because irrigation ends there, he said.
Sterling Banks said similar programs have been popular in Summit County with many people taking advantage of offers to sell development rights.
They can continue to farm or ranch but are compensated for committing the land to open space. Land owners up Chalk Creek and Hoytsville instantly came to his mind.
"There’s definitely a need," he said. "There are still producers out there making a living."
Cheryl Fox, executive director of the Summit Land Conservancy, said this bill could greatly aid what she does. Land owners in Summit County often offer her their development rights, but she has to come up with the money to buy them.
There are a few federal government programs that pledge funds, but they’re usually matching grants and if the conservancy can’t find matching money the deal falls through.
Fox said she supports all forms of funding for this initiative. Also, her understanding of it is that whoever used to receive portions of the rollback tax will be compensated in other ways, so there are no losers.
"It’s a really interesting idea," she said. "This could be a very good thing."